Regulation and the adoptive parent

Emotional regulation is an unconscious act for many of us.  When emotionally regulated, we often feel calm, connected and safe within ourselves and with the world in general.  While life may not be ‘perfect’, our sense is one of hope. We are alive in the present moment.  

When we become unregulated, we move out of this calm, connected, safe place (what I call the Green zone).  Instead we enter a place of fight / flight (Amber zone) or freeze (Red zone). 

How do I differentiate between zones?

Each zone has a distinct feel, encompassing emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations and behaviour.

Green zone – Para-sympathetic Nervous System (Ventral Vagus)

Able to self-regulate and help others to regulate; Connect with others and with yourself; Tune into the moment, not worry / ruminate; Resourced and resourceful; Reach out for, and offer, support; Hopeful; Offer compassion and self-compassion; Feeling strong but flexible 

Amber zone – Sympathetic Nervous System

Sense of unease and impending danger; Not able to connect with others or yourself; High energy; Active aggression or escape; Alarmed, hyper vigilant; Looking and listening for danger; High worry for the future / ruminate over the past; Sense of separation – cut off from others 

Red zone – Para-sympathetic Nervous System (Dorsal Vagus)

Body enters conservation mode; Connection, safety and hope feel unreachable; Numb; Disconnected, untethered; Alone; Hopeless 

(Reference: Deb Dana, A Polyvagal Guided Approach)

Prior to adopting, I spent most of my life in the Green zone. I had experienced relationship breakdown followed by divorce, work stress and relationship struggles; what I would call the ‘normal’ challenges that many of us face through our lifetime. I did move into the Amber zone on a fairly regular basis but was always able to return myself to a Green zone state. Regulating myself was something that just happened, often with little conscious thought. 

Adoptive parenting pulled me out of my Green zone.  I spent my time at home dealing with the manifestation of adverse childhood experiences.  When I wasn’t dealing with those experiences, I was battling with Services for understanding and support.  Most of my life, I guess about 80% of my time, was spent in the Amber zone.  How my body felt, my thoughts, feelings and behaviours, were driven by threat.  That’s not to say we lived in a house where there was constant fighting or I was running away, more that there was an underlying sense of unease, danger and unpredictability.  My body felt pretty wired all of the time. 

This had implications for both my physical and mental health. It also had enormous implications for our family, in particular for my daughter.  Because I lived in the Amber zone, I was not able to offer her the safety, hope and connection of the Green zone.  And she needed Green zone parenting so that she could build secure attachment pathways and learn how to regulate her own nervous system function.

During my years of family therapy, no-one ever really spoke to me about what was happening for me.  Our therapists empathised with how hard it was, but the focus of our work was about giving me the tools and techniques to be a therapeutic parent.  It’s easy to reflect on what could have been different.  My wish was that someone had said to me “you are living most of your time in Amber, we need to teach you how to live in your Green zone again”.

Note of caution: it sounds simple to return to the Green zone, but it can be difficult depending on your personal life history and circumstances.  Sometimes a therapist or a trusted friend or family member can help us on this journey.

Was it just me?

I was curious – was it only me who felt this way?  Through interviewing participants for my research, it became clear that I was not the only adoptive parent to consistently live in Amber / Red zones.  Participants spoke of a range of experiences that moved them into an unregulated state, including:

  • Realising they didn’t have the skills needed to parent their children, often because information had been withheld from them
  • Experiencing verbal and physical abuse
  • Feeling isolated as a result of friends and family pulling away
  • Feeling judged and blamed and being self-critical
  • Fighting for support for their children and the broader family
  • Worrying about the future, in particular their child’s future
  • Feeling physically and mentally exhausted

Many lived much of their life in the Amber zone.

It’s important to say that the aim is not to live in the Green zone for 100% of the time – that would be unrealistic and there are times that Amber (in particular) is relevant.  However, for those of us who have started to live the majority of our time in the Amber zone, the aim is to increase our time in the Green zone.

Learning to live in the Green zone

Through my clinical work, and in applying the principles to myself, I know that it is possible to live in a complex family situation, but to spend extended time in the Green zone.

First: notice how these different states are for you. Build an awareness of what happens to you in each state.  By that, I mean notice what happens within your body, are your thoughts positive / negative, what feelings are there, and how do you behave? Are you connecting with others or pulling back from connection?  Are you living in the present moment, or going back / forward in time?  Building this awareness is important because often we don’t define what’s happening for us, we just experience it. The aim is to increase your awareness of what happens to you in each of these central nervous system states.

Second: identify what supports your move to the Green zone.  This may be people, activities or places. Build a list that places you in (or helps to return you to) the Green zone.  My list includes:

Yoga, Walking in nature, Patting my cat, Having a really nice coffee and cake, Talking to family and friends, Signing out loud, Reading, Flowers, Laughing, Immersing myself in a film or tv program, Being in my garden, Talking through things with a counsellor / husband / close friend, Using a safe place visualisation after crisis points

Third:  start a mindfulness / breathing / living in the moment practice.  When you live in a world that feels constantly dangerous, it feels comfortable to be in that state.  We keep the Amber zone alive by being self-critical, predicting something negative in the future, or revisiting past incidents.  I have found it takes considerable time and energy to actually live in the present moment and practicing mindfulness has made the single biggest difference to my life. 

In practicing these three steps, you will hopefully build your awareness about your central nervous system function.  As a result, when you move to an Amber / Red zone, you will notice that change, and you will have pre-identified strategies to return yourself to a regulated state.  Over time this will have a cumulative effect.  

Parenting a child with complex needs can be very personally challenging.  Increasing time in the Green zone can bring improvements in both mental health and physical health.  It can help to increase parental presence and increase feelings of empowerment.  Through repetition, returning to and living in a safe, connected and hopeful place will become your new normal.

As always, the parent is the greatest healing tool for the child. Helping to regulate ourselves will ultimately help us to help our children.  

References:  Polyvagal Theory is an essential tool for my work as is the work of Carolyn Spring (Reversing Adversity), Dan Siegel and many mindfulness teachers (in particular I reference the Mindfulness for Wellbeing & Peak Performance program offered by Monash University through Future Learn).

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