In order for children to be able to regulate their own stress levels, they need to have had this experience from an adult. Babies are unable to regulate their own stress and they depend on their caregivers to regulate it for them. For example, when a baby cries because they are hungry, tired or upset and the adult responds with love and concern, this helps to reduce the baby’s stress. If a crying baby is ignored or met with anxiety or hostility, it can increase their stress. The way the adult responds to this stress can either help the child to develop their own stress regulatory system, or create even more stress and prevent this development taking place. If the child gets what they need from an adult then a pattern develops that allows the child to begin to manage stress for themselves.
In order for children to develop healthily, adults need to respond to children’s stress in a way that calms and soothes them rather than exacerbates their stress. For example, Tom aged 3 is happily playing with a train when another child snatches it from him. Tom screams with rage and hits the child. If he is soothed, comforted, listened to and supported then this validates his feelings and enables stress regulatory systems to be developed. If he is offered a calm and clear explanation about not hitting other children then he is gradually able to understand that this behaviour is not acceptable. Tom is totally dependent on the stress regulating systems of a caring adult to help him to develop his own. If a caring adult is able to help him with his feelings and acknowledge and soothe his distress, he gradually develops the ability to do this for himself. As stressful situations occur in his life, he has the ability to manage them due to his initial experiences of stress being held and helped by a caring adult. When a child’s parent or carer is able to regulate their own feelings and demonstrate positive and healthy ways of managing their own stress and anxiety, this is beneficial to the child who has this as a template of how to deal with feelings.
However, if the adult responds to the situation by shouting at him, dragging him away or smacking him for hitting the other child, Tom will feel even more stressed and anxious and will be unable to develop self-regulation. He does not learn how to manage stress and anxiety for himself; instead he learns to be wary and fearful of other people and finds it extremely difficult to share. He is overwhelmed by his feelings and unable to self-regulate. He may learn that feelings are to be feared and avoided at all times, rather than managed and expressed in a healthy way.