Emotional self regulation, or the ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience, is necessary to function in daily life and have strong personal relationships. (Rolston). But what happens when someone is emotionally dysregulated or unable to control their emotions because of trauma? What can they do to learn emotional regulation?
Strangely enough, we can understand and learn more from the story of Artemis the Hedgehog.
First off, Hedgehogs are great at Emotional Regulation
Back in 2021, Havenwood Academy adopted hedgehogs to help our students with animal assisted therapy. Hedgehogs are used in our program to provide real time feedback to students, related to their emotional regulation. If the students holding the small animal are not emotionally regulated, the hedgehogs will curl up in a ball and interact very little. As our students regulate their emotions, the hedgehogs will open up and react positively with their handler.
By understanding Hedgehog’s ability to mirror emotional regulation, it is easy to see the therapeutic benefit for our students. Students can begin to understand their own self regulation and emotional stability with these interactions.
But Artemis was different from our other Hedgehogs…
When the hedgehogs were first introduced to our therapeutic program, there was one hedgehog that stood out: Artemis the Hedgehog. Artemis was difficult to handle. No matter who was holding her, she hissed, bit, scratched, and remained in her curled up in a ball of spikes. This made it so NO ONE wanted to hold her.
Students even wanted to get rid of her.
“Put her out of her misery!”
“We would be better off without her!”
“She doesn’t want to be here, let’s just get rid of it!”
There were stories and rumors about Artemis’s past before Havenwood and why she acted the way she did. Talk about how she may have been put through a washing machine. Stories about being thrown around in a pillow case.
Artemis had been hurt and traumatized. She had no reason to believe any interaction wouldn’t result in more trauma. Even a mere touch would set her off in a panic, using her spikes to hide her face.
Trauma causes difficulties with Emotional Regulation
Artemis had gone through trauma, this caused her nervous system to constantly be in fight or flight mode. Because she always had to be defensive and on edge to survive, Artemis was unable to self regulate her emotions.
Even the tiniest movement toward her would result in a mismatch of emotional response. If a student attempted to pet her softly, Artemis would lash out or even bite to protect herself. To make matters worse, some students would react negatively towards her defensive behavior. It would be easy for any child to drop her if they were bitten unexpectedly. This reaction would reinforce Artemis’s behavior, giving her more evidence of constant danger.
Something needed to change for Artemis
After watching the negative views of Artemis, Havenwood Academy’s Experiential Coordinator, Brad Lundell, decided to make a few changes. Instead of leaving her by herself, Brad started to bring her to all the experiential groups throughout the week.
After a few weeks of seeing her around, students began to open up to Artemis. They began to understand her trauma was not too different from their own. By transforming the culture to become more trauma-informed, everyone began treating Artemis differently.
Students wanted to hold her. Students became defensive of her.
Understanding her need for protection, everyone made sure she was safe and treated correctly. By learning her triggers, boundaries, needs, students especially understood the need to communicate their own.
Transforming towards a Trauma-Informed Culture
As students and Artemis were exposed to each other more, everyone began understanding her more. They learned that her triggers included being pet, held, or touched involuntarily. Her boundaries were being held safely. Artemis’s needs were centered around safety and space to calm down. She felt especially empowered on the floor with freedom and control to explore around her.
They came to understand what Artemis’s trauma meant.
It was no longer: “Oh you’re traumatized, we should get rid of you.”
Now it’s: “Oh you’re traumatized? I am too. Let’s be buddies. We can work on this together.”
By respecting Artemis with a deeper understanding, rather than negatively responding, students showed her that she can be safe. After showing her safety, respect, and understanding, the student built a connection with Artemis. Their relationships grew stronger as a result of these positive interactions.
Co-Regulation leads to Emotional Self Regulation
As Artemis has grown stronger healthy relationships, she is now learning how to emotionally self regulate again. She has done this by utilizing Co-Regulation.
Co-regulation is a process whereby we help another regulate emotion through our voice, our prompts, our reassurance, our words of comfort, and following the lead of the emotion offered by the person speaking (Garcy). In other words, Co-regulation is where you can depend on someone outside of yourself for emotional regulation. This can look like a mother’s voice calming her baby or being held while crying by a partner. Artemis gets co-regulation by being held in the particular ways she prefers when upset.
Just as Artemis is learning how to self regulate again, humans begin learning this skill from co-regulation in early childhood development.
Learning emotional regulation through others
Study after study shows how essential early childhood secure attachments are. They are necessary in providing healthy co-regulation for development.
“Regardless of their role, a caregiver’s warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity support self-regulation development and may buffer the effects of adverse childhood experiences. Effective co-regulation by a supportive caregiver will promote self efficacy and allow children, youth, and young adults to feel secure enough to practice new skills and learn from mistakes.” (Rosanbalm).
When children lack co-regulation due to a lack of a secure attachment figure, they struggle. They are unable to learn the ability to self-regulate their emotions.
“Like many of the children we serve struggle with regulating their emotions, Artemis experienced trauma of her own which caused her nervous system to become highly aroused. By having the students learn to regulate their emotions (self-regulation) they have effectively helped Artemis regulate her emotions (co-regulations). Artemis started to be held more and more which decreased her hyperarousal and increased her ability to regulate her emotions. The takeaway message is that co-regulation and secure attachments decrease hyperarousal and increase self-regulation.” – Christina Hauritz, Havenwood Academy Clinical Director
Relationships are a powerful tool for Emotional Regulation
But what happens when children (or hedgehogs) can’t learn self regulation because they never received any co-regulation?
Many of our students struggle self regulating because of the lack of secure attachments in their early childhood. Without that security, many inevitably gain many behavior issues. These can include: running away, violence and aggression, ADHD, OCD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), addiction, and more.
In order to help our clients succeed in regulating their emotions (and have less reactive behaviors) we provide the opportunity to grow healthy and safe relationships. We show our students that we can’t be pushed away and that we can be trusted. As trust builds, clients can begin to co-regulate and eventually learn to self regulate their emotions.
Artemis, with all her hissing and biting, pushed people away. She was denied safe relationships with people, so she continued her behavior to protect herself. After learning that not everyone was trying to hurt her, she has started to build relationships with our students.
When asked about her improvement, Brad Lundell happily reported that she had, “a lot of improvement. When she calms down, you can pick her up and hold her now! The girls’ reaction to her, I think, is one of the big pieces. The people around her have helped start the healing, teaching her how to react. They have built relationships with her and want her to be safe, healthy, and happy.”
Havenwood is here to help
If you are unsure of your child’s ability to emotionally self regulate causing them to gain more behavioral issues, contact Havenwood Academy today. We center around building relationships and provide the environment necessary to do so. Call us at (877) 830-7012 or fill out our contact form.
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