It recently occurred to me why my twelve-year-old son is so settled and calm after attending his karate class. Karate includes movement, pattern, and repetition. Karate provides a sense of rhythm. When we think of rhythm, images of music, drums, dancing, and marching bands are evoked. Rhythm is fun. However, this concept has a much deeper meaning in the role of childhood regulation and the development of resilience. Rhythm is really about predictability. What is it about predictability that is so good for children?
Children tend to have access primarily to their autonomic brain functions (a.k.a. the fight or flight alarm state) and, particularly when under stress, they lose access to the thinking and emotional parts of their brains. American psychiatrist and author Bruce Perry suggests that the only way children can move from a state of high anxiety and activation to a calmer state is through rhythm. “Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity…[uses] brain stem-related somatosensory networks which make your brain accessible to relational…reward and cortical thinking.” Simply put, rhythm leads to regulation!
There are numerous ways that we, as caregivers and helpers, can create predictable rhythm in children’s lives. As children are naturally drawn to rhythm, we can effectively cultivate relationships, environments, and activities that will facilitate regulated brains and promote resilience.
1. Self-Regulation as Rhythm
Self-regulation can be defined as the ability to tune into our own bodies, interpret our own needs and experiences, listen to our emotions, and manage our feelings. As caregivers, we have a role in helping children organize their feelings and understand their own particular rhythms regarding sleep, hunger, moods, and energy levels.
A toddler who falls will look over to their caregiver for a cue about how are they feeling: “Am I ok? Am I hurt? Should I cry?” A preschooler who has temper tantrums every morning needs to learn that their body is hungry. A school-age child who yells at his mom when he gets home from school needs help to sort out his feelings about being excluded on the playground. And an adolescent who stays up too late watching YouTube videos is not listening to their sleep rhythm needs and would benefit from parental direction.
When children listen to their body rhythms they learn that they can trust their bodies to let them know what they need and that they can trust themselves to get their needs met. Through listening to their body, they will develop a sense of personal responsibility and agency.
2. Rhythm Through Attunement
Attachment theory tells us that children need emotional attunement – for their caregivers to be able to align their own internal state with that of the child’s. Attuning and responding to children’s needs is referred to as interactive regulation. We all develop interactive rhythms in our relationships. When we predictably see and hear children, being sure to value, recognize, and understand them, we are cultivating a relationship based on safety and security.
We can provide interactive regulation for children by being predictable in our emotional response to them. When my son is acting out I can come close and look into his eyes, put on a frustrated expression and say, “You’re frustrated.” And then I can smile a little bit to let him know that I think it’s going to be okay. By doing this, he knows that it’s safe to express his emotions around his mom. I can also respond to each of my children based on my knowledge of their particular rhythms. For example, I will not ask my youngest to do homework until after supper as his body rhythms do not allow him to focus well after school. I will not inundate my oldest with questions about the day as his body needs quiet after a full day of being social. I can do this knowing that he usually talks to me at the end of the day.
3. Rhythm Through Structure
When we provide routine and predictable structure in the home and in children’s other environments, children benefit in a lot of ways. Predictability fosters trust (“But mom, you always scratch my back before bed!”) and allows children to anticipate their day and their expectations. The key, however, is to find a balance between predictability and rigidity.
If we are truly responsive to our children’s rhythms we will recognize that sometimes those rhythms change. I must say that I really enjoyed the years of my children being in bed by 8:00 pm. The children’s sleep rhythms fit really well with my own need for relaxing and spending time with my husband. However, wellness is also about adaptability. We’re finding our new rhythms together.
4. Rhythm Through Activity
There are countless benefits to children engaging in movement, arts, music, and reading. Why is it that children love rhyming stories, dance, swimming, play, drama, and games? One of the reasons is that these activities facilitate regulated nervous systems.
One of the best ways we can help children develop calm and regulated nervous systems is through activities that expose them to an alternation between settled and aroused states. When children can move into activated states for just a short time, and then back into a calm state, they are teaching their bodies to move out of the fight or flight alarm state in a natural way. Think about games such as Duck, Duck, Goose and Charades. Why do we feel so good when we go to an exercise class, play a game of tennis, or read a compelling story? Anything that children or adults do that allows the nervous system to experience pattern and pendulation between being settled and activated teaches the body to regulate itself.
It’s important not to minimize the benefits of rhythm in children’s lives. Think about the opportunities that the children in your care already have for rhythm and then get creative!
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