Updated: Aug 30, 2020
Are you struggling to help a child who has been through hard times? Does the child seem unreachable, unmanageable, or unwilling to talk? Are you at your at the end of your rope with explosive behavior? If so, I have a concept to share with you that might help increase positive interactions within your family or classroom.
I want to start by saying that it can be incredibly frustrating and anxiety-provoking to witness a child who is suffering emotionally without the tools or know-how to help her. You are not alone in this experience. If you answered yes to the questions at the opening of this article, you are likely caring for a child exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). They may also be experiencing symptoms of trauma, leaving them in a constant state of too low or too high arousal. One way we understand the impact trauma makes on a child's behavior is by observing the relationship between arousal and performance, also known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.
As humans, we fluctuate throughout each day in different states of arousal. The American Psychological Association defines arousal as "A state of physiological activation that can facilitate or debilitate performance."
In the Yerkes-Dodson model, levels of arousal are conceptualized on a spectrum as it relates to performance, which means that as arousal increases, performance increases, to a peak level, after which it declines, exponentially (see graph below). On the continuum of arousal, we have a low arousal, optimal arousal, and high arousal. An example of low arousal is how you feel when you are tired at the end of a long day. Optimal arousal might be how you feel after taking a shower in the morning - alert and confident about the day ahead. High arousal typically feels like nervous energy and leads to panic, as if you think your life is threatened in some way.
Fig. 1 (above) - The Hebbian version of the Yerkes-Dodson Law
Children exposed to adverse events and developmental trauma can spend the majority of their time in a low state of arousal or a high state of arousal, which impairs their ability to function in everyday life and maintain healthy relationships. To put it in perspective - what kind of decision-making skills and emotional regulation do you have when you are fatigued or anxious? I'm betting you find it hard to manage your emotions in these states as well, and you are hopefully working with a fully developed and untraumatized brain. These children are not.
Low arousal - is a state of inactivity and limited performance in response to stimuli. The child's behavior will appear apathetic, shut down, frozen, fatigued, or sedated. At times possibly catatonic. A child exposed to trauma may be in a state of low arousal if she frequently avoids interaction with others, refuses to participate in activities, and closes out the world as a reaction to stress. These are children who freeze in the face of fear. They may seem "stuck" in their development and unwilling to adapt to changes.
Optimal arousal - is a state beyond low arousal and represented by behavior that is activated, yet calm and peaceful yet alert. The child will be aware, engaged, and ready to respond appropriately to stimuli or stressors. A child coping with the impact of trauma may experience optimal arousal when he feels safe. This state could take place while playing sports, playing an instrument, or while spending time doing things that make him feel confident.
TIP: Notice when the child is in an optimal state and encourage her to spend time in environments that encourage this behavior. Instead of focusing on only the high and low states of arousal, point out to the child times when she appears optimally aroused. Show an interest in the activities that bring her closer to an activated, yet relaxed state. If the child does not have any activities that illicit optimal arousal try introducing them to her. Some ideas are baking, karate, yoga, building, painting, gardening, and spending time in nature. Nature has the unique ability to ground people who feel untethered. Feeling grounded reduces anxiety and comforts the hurting.
High arousal - is a state of over-activation. High arousal is indicated by aggression, anxiety, an inability to sit still, focus on tasks, manage impulses, and regulate emotions. A child who is hyper-aroused will demonstrate behavior similar to extreme levels of anxiety, rage, and confusion. These are the children who act out in the face of fear. They may seek negative stimulation as an outlet for their emotions, such as physical fighting with peers, getting into trouble with the law, and low performance in school. Due to being in a state of high arousal, children exposed to trauma have difficulty making healthy decisions and following through on tasks.
To put this into context, the last time you feared for your life, worried about the safety of a family member or wondered about the next time you would eat - how well were you able to manage your emotions and make healthy decisions? I am hoping you never found yourself in these situations as a child, but if you did, I doubt you would care about turning in your homework, behaving in the lunchroom, or taking out the trash.
Children in a state of high arousal due to a history of threats to their safety or the safety of a loved one will use negative behavior as a survival mechanism. Believe it or not, they are doing the best they can to get through each day. Being in trouble with teachers and caregivers can feel safe for a child who is accustomed to chaos. Negative behavior can double as a distraction from their genuine fears.
Using the Yerkes-Dodson law, we can consider a child's level of arousal before reacting to their behavior. We can think about whether or not they are in an optimal state of arousal before trying to teach or verbally connect. Maybe they need quiet time or a hug intead.
TIP: A child who is in low or high levels of arousal responds much better to non-verbal communication. Wait until the child is closer to an optimal level to explain directions, teach a lesson, or impart your point of view. Talking and yelling at a child will keep them fixated in high or low levels of arousal.
Once you are aware of the child's state of arousal, what can you do? First, just recognizing and understanding this concept will help you perceive the child comprehensively. Instead of responding with anger or frustration when you see these behaviors, you might feel more empathy and compassion for the child. This change alone can alter the dynamic between the two of you. Additionally, there are some things you can do to help shift a child closer toward the peak on the arousal continuum.
Reflect, Connect and Redirect
Reflect. Help them talk about disturbing events. You can do this by validating their experience and reflecting to them how they felt. For example, "You don't know when you will see your mom again. That must be scary." Adults typically shy away from the fears of children. But talking about our emotions brings them out of the dark and into the light. Once they are in the sun, they tend to be much less anxiety-provoking. Don't be afraid to validate a child's fears or anger out of your anxiety that it will increase these experiences. Validating feelings, no matter how big and scary they are, reduces stress.
Connect. Build trust by sharing about your own life. Children exposed to trauma have difficulty trusting that they are safe in the care of adults. One way to build trust and reduce anxiety is by sharing a time you felt scared or angry as a kid and how you responded to it. Sharing a failure or a time you let someone down might be appropriate too. Just be aware of oversharing - do not dump unnecessary stress onto the child. Keep the stories short and age-appropriate. Your goal here is to impart wisdom, not vent your traumas.
Redirect. After connection, attempt to redirect the child by using playfulness and goofy behavior to shift a child into an optimal state of arousal. Kids usually respond well to humor and silliness (but not always, so pay attention to their cues). Use your inner child to find ways to engage with the child in playful ways. Play will increase dopamine in the reward center of the brain, and associate the two of you with a positive experience. Children exposed to trauma can heal through consistent positive interactions with trustworthy adults and peers. Every positive interaction with a child changes the neural pathways in the brain. It provides the child with an opportunity to connect positive outcomes by putting themselves in safe relation with others.
Helping a child heal from adverse childhood experiences and trauma is a long journey. In the beginning, it might feel impossible to help the child. When you think this way, remember the power you have to be an example of a healthy, safe adult in the child's life. Remember that each positive interaction is another chance to heal their pain and change the brain. Remember that children are watching you, and your behavior can be their greatest teacher.