How Can I Help My Young Child Build the Capacity For Self-awareness and Regulation: A Caregiver’s Guide to Interoception
June 1, 2023
By: Renee Allen, MS, OTR
What do you know about your own body signals?
How do you know you are hungry? How do you know you are angry? Hopefully as adults we have learned which body sensations combine to tell us which actions we should take or which feelings we are having? Our bodies also tell us not only what we need or the emotion we are having, but how intensely we are feeling that need or emotion. For example, when I am a little hungry, my stomach aches a little bit, and I may or may not eat. When I am more hungry, I feel movement in my stomach and whole abdomen, and I will usually stop what I am doing to eat. When I am very hungry, I may not notice my stomach as much as I notice my heart rate increase, and my chest and muscles tightening. I get agitated, unfocused, and generally annoyed with everyone around me. I get hangry! We use similar body clues to tell us which emotion we are having. For example, my heart rate goes up when I am excited and when I am angry. However, with excitement my toes and fingers get wiggly and my feet feel like jumping, while with anger my muscles in my chest tighten, my fists clench and I take short breaths. I can tell the difference between these emotions because my body feels different for each emotion. These internal sensations that are linked to our actions and feelings are called interoception.
How did you come to understand the meaning of words like “hungry” or “tired”? It is more than likely that someone very close to you interpreted your signals and they made meaning of them for you. If you were acting hungry, they would feed you. If you were tired, they would put you down for a nap. Hopefully, as you got older, with support you learned to recognize your body signals so you could take those actions on your own. The same is true with emotions. In our own bodies, we understand the emotions that others have given meaning to. Which emotions did you grow up knowing and talking about? Most people know when they are happy, sad, or mad. Most people can tell you how their body feels when experiencing these different emotions. However, can you describe the difference in your body between frustrated, disappointed, and embarrassed? Can you describe the difference between anxious and excited?
In Western cultures, we are not encouraged to talk about our body. Once we are potty trained, rarely do we ever talk about toileting or our bowel movements. It is not culturally engrained to talk about our heart rates, our breathing pace, or the pits in our stomachs. We may have been introduced to emotional vocabulary, but we rarely take the time to discuss what those emotions feel like in our bodies. Even as an adult do you take the time to stop and notice how your body is feeling when you are experiencing a big emotion? What happens to your body when you watch your child run through a parking lot? What happens to your body when you see your child take their first step? What happens to your body when you comfort your child after they have fallen down? Not only were we likely never taught to notice and discriminate these internal body sensations, but our busy lifestyles also rarely leave moments for stopping long enough to process what our interoception is telling us.
We want our children to understand and be able to regulate their emotions so that they can go to school, play with other children and be a connected member of our families. We want them to feel successful in their bodies and in their relationships. If that is truly our goal, then we need to give them the skills to understand their bodies in the context of their needs and emotions. We need to support them in stopping, noticing and giving meaning to the difference in their internal sensations.
How do we help children gain this essential foundation for emotional awareness and regulation?
--> We model
Children do what we do. They use vocabulary, expressions, and judgments that we use. They adopt our culture. If we do not talk about our bodies out loud then it is likely that our children will not either, despite what we try to teach them. If they hear us talking about our bodies: when our heart rate changes, when we need to take deep breaths, or when our fingers needed to squeeze something hard, they will talk about their bodies too. If we change the culture in our households to include body awareness and body talk for everyone, then they will be taught through social learning.
If this is hard for you, as it was for me, why do you think that is? Is it embarrassing? Were you taught that talking about your body was not polite? What do you need to do to talk about your body out loud? Do you need permission? Do you need a reminder on the fridge that says “notice my body”? Before we ask our children to gain this skill, what do we need to learn about ourselves to be their models?
--> We attune
We begin wondering what our children’s signals mean when they are infants. Are they hungry? Are they tired? Through attunement and trial and error, we eventually come to understand the subtle differences in their cries or in their actions. We regulate them through validating their experience and helping them to meet their needs. Do they need food? Do they need to be rocked? What do we think their body is telling us about their experience or emotion? We continue to use attunement and to find meaning in our children’s behaviors throughout toddlerhood, childhood and even into adolescence.
As attuned caregivers we see patterns of behaviors that show up when a child is experiencing a need or an emotion. The infamous “pee-pee” dance comes to mind. We can wonder with a child out loud. “I see your body shifting back and forth, I wonder if your bladder is full, and you need to use the bathroom?”. Can we do more wondering after using the bathroom? “I wonder how you feel now that you your bladder is empty?” We can do the same wondering around emotions. If a child is upset because they did not get their way, we can wonder with them; “I see that you wanted to go first, and your sister got to this time. I see that your fists are clenched, and your body wants to hide. I wonder if you were feeling disappointed”. If a child is very upset, we may reflect with them when they are calm. “I wonder what happened, earlier today? You screamed and your fists were clenched after you couldn’t put those blocks together. I wonder if your heart rate was going fast. I wonder if you were feeling frustrated?” When we wonder with a child, then we give them the vocabulary to wonder about what is happening in their bodies. When they begin to make their own connections between their needs, emotions and their bodies, they will be better able to find the appropriate actions.
Modeling, attuning, and wondering are self-regulation tools you do not have to buy or travel to get. We can use these tools with them early, even before they have their own words. We can wonder out loud about their bodies with them all day long: during their routines, during play, during bedtime. This doesn’t have to be therapy; it can just be life. Even though these tools do not cost money, they do require an investment: time and a commitment to include body talk into your family culture. If you make this investment, you can feel confident that it will positively influence your child’s capacity for self-awareness and regulation.
Renee Allen is a pediatric occupational therapist and recently released her first children's book, Joey's Heart. Joey's Heart teaches kids how to understand their own body signals, particularly the speed and strength of their heartbeat, to eventually learn how to best understand their emotions!