This week’s special podcast guest is developmental and clinical psychologist, Kathy Platzman from Floortime Atlanta, an expert on the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model. Not only is Dr. Platzman an Expert DIR Training Leader, but she is the Director of Clinical Training for the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning (ICDL). She is also a Fielding Graduate University faculty member.
I spoke with Dr. Platzman about how our regulation as parents can affect our children’s regulation–for good or for bad–and all of its implications. We discussed what dysregulates parents, the pressure and guilt that parents feel, and how we can be in control of affecting our children’s regulation in a positive way.
How a caregiver’s regulation affects the child’s regulation with Dr. Kathy Platzman
Self regulation and attention
The first thing we wonder about when a new child is born is a regulation capacity. It is the thing you can assess the moment you’re born. It’s about your ability to stay calm, focused and alert while taking in information in every sense, and while staying connected to people.
It was really Dr. Stanley Greenspan who said that if you can’t stay regulated you’re going to miss the boat at almost everything as a human being. As a species we are social and everything in our nervous system is designed to help us stay connected to people. It’s similarly deep-wired to stay regulated.
None of us self-regulate. We learn to self-regulate through co-regulating. The baby cries, we pick them up and calm them down, and if we can’t calm them down, we worry that something is very wrong. To focus on this first developmental capacity is not about figuring out if you can do it, then checking it off your list. We’re doing it all the time. It’s the basis of everything we do.
You help everything when you help parents with this first capacity. You help them influence the child’s ability to learn, regulate, communicate, reason, and think. It’s the most important developmental capacity. Dr. Platzman thinks of the developmental ladder as a wedding cake where the layer on the bottom needs to be the largest and the sturdiest one.
Why so many parents struggle with this first capacity
Parents really struggle with this first functional emotional developmental capacity in their children because the world is not designed for the autistic brain and at any moment, we know that anything can set off our child–whether due to sensory issues or otherwise. Some children can cry for hours at a time while others can be co-regulated with a loving caregiver fairly quickly.
Dr. Platzman says that there’s a social pressure as well because there’s a social expectation that children of a certain age don’t freak out in public. So parents judge themselves, then get judged in public. Parents want so desperately want to help their child, but also want their child to be able to take care of themselves due to social judgment.
You also have your own regulation to worry about, which is especially difficult to deal with when in public. And parents have so many different personalities and vary in their ability to adapt over time. Dr. Platzman says that regulation is a big deal for everyone. When people get road rage, they take a big feeling of frustration and take it out on others. Others self-comfort with treats. Still others numb out the feelings.
Of course what we all wish is that we could calm ourselves down and think it through, then adapt accordingly, but that rarely happens with big feelings right away. The same thing is true for children on the spectrum. How do you handle big feelings? Do you ask for help to handle the big feelings? Parents first have to figure out how they regulate themselves, then figure out how to help their children.
Gauging our own regulation
Dr. Platzman compares promoting our own regulation to suggestions for preventing panic attacks. Get enough rest, eat well, and stay hydrated.
These are all great goals, but easier said than done. So Dr. Platzman says first we need to realize what boat we’re in and realize what we can do.
Habits are hard to change and it’s the guilt of what we should do that causes so much stress. Figure out what you can change and what you can’t and embrace that. Say, “I’m in the boat that doesn’t sleep, eat well, nor exercise. Woo hoo!”
Knowing the developmental approach and having the tools and strategies in your pocket will help you keep your calm when in moments of dysregulation. Dr. Platzman says that the book No More Meltdowns by Dr. Jed Baker–although not about DIR/Floortime–has some real gems in it.
The child's individual profile
Some kids need a physical release like jumping on a trampoline. Some need to jump before they go to school all day, or before Grandma comes over. Figuring out your child’s individual sensory processing profile is challenging but so essential. It’s also so satisfying because you can offer real help once you understand your child.
Dr. Baker, whose video appears here, says that when meltdowns happen it’s usually due to one of four things: (1) that we need something now and lack the patience to wait, (2) we’ve been asked to do something we can’t do, (3) thinking something is reflecting on my self-image, or (4) just really needing some love and attention.
Dr. Platzman suggests that we first take care of ourselves by reflecting on our own to figure out our own triggers for our own meltdowns. It might look like this: “When I have a bad day, it’s because I lack patience. When I have a meltdown it’s because someone asked me to do something I can’t do.” Self-understanding will help you understand and help your child.
The DIR approach to meltdowns
- With patience, compassion and self-compassion, the first and best thing to do when in meltdown mode is to name the feeling you see in yourself to yourself, and out loud to your child. There is robust data that says that when we name a feeling in ourselves, our limbic system shuts down and our higher brain kicks in. Knowing feelings is very important. “Are you happy, sad, worried, scared, excited? You look so…” Step 1B is to wait. “You look really, really mad now, baby” and wait. State it and hope that it sinks in.
- You can be quite mad at a child who is having a meltdown. You might be thinking, “we’ve been through this a thousand times and this is enough!” But on the outside, you sympathize. “I’m sorry you’re feeling so mad.” Then step 2B is to wait. We are helping the child to calm down by first, stating some feelings, and next by showing empathy. “You’re not alone.”
- The third step is to start to think of a solution. The child’s problem-solving ideas are better than yours for them, but they might not be able to do their best thinking in this moment. So you say, “I wonder what we could do about it” and then step 3B is to wait. Perhaps the child will make an impossible suggestion. You can then validate it with, “I know. I wish we could do something like that. I wish it could be that easy.” Then you suggest, “I wonder if we just sat down and I gave you a big hug…” and perhaps the child doesn’t like it. You can still suggest, “Well we’ll figure out something.” Now everyone has started to calm down.
Dr. Platzman gives a nice example of a father’s experience doing this with a child who had such difficult meltdowns that he had to be put in his room with the door closed. You want your child to feel heard. No feeling is final. No meltdown is the final state.
Eventually things calm down and the thinking comes back online. Even if your child is still too young or non-communicative, these three steps help the parents. Just like with crying babies who don’t understand when we calm them, they pick up on the parent’s calming techniques.
The self-talk helps you co-regulate yourself in your mind. What would Stanley Greenspan say? His ideas can co-regulate you. If you’re not your own best friend, you can’t get much done in the first capacity of regulation.
If you found this podcast enlightening and learned a tip or two about how to manage your own regulation, or your child’s, please consider sharing this blog post on Facebook or Twitter via the links below, and please share your experiences or insights about this week’s topic in the Comments section below.
Until next week… here’s to affecting autism!