The Need for an External Regulator in the Playroom

This blog article was written by Lisa Dion,
Founder and President of the Play Therapy Institute of Colorado
and author of Aggression in Play Therapy: A Neurobiological Approach
for Integrating Intensity.


I’m going to ask a question; the way you answer will help you understand why it is essential for therapists to become external regulators in the playroom as children work towards integrating their challenging thoughts, emotions, and sensations.  Are you ready? Here it is: When babies are crying, distressed, and upset, why do we rock them? Is our goal to soothe the pain in their bodies? To settle the emotional discomfort they’re feeling inside? To tell them they’re not alone? To foster an environment of trust and attachment? To let them know it’s okay to voice their needs? Of course, you know the answer: yes, to all the above.

But the purpose of rocking doesn’t end there. As babies are swayed back and forth, they learn about the sensations in their bodies.  They begin to develop a relationship with the highs and lows that exist as part of their nervous system activation while learning that it is ok to move towards their uncomfortable internal states instead of needing to avoid them.

Babies require the help of an external regulator to organise their internal experience. We might even say that babies borrow the regulatory capacity of the caregiver as their own regulatory capacity develops. Allan Schore summed it up: “The mother is literally a regulator of the crescendos and decrescendos of the baby’s developing autonomic nervous system” (Bullard, 2015).

Understanding this is a key element in our abilities to help children process and integrate the challenging experiences in their lives; after all, the children we work with are babies disguised in kid bodies.  Children working through traumatic experiences are often incapable of self-regulation because their nervous system states are so activated – in a particular moment or possibly – that they never learned how to self-soothe in the first place.  That’s where you and I come in: helping children integrate requires a repatterning of their nervous system. This starts with us.

In our work with children, we must become the external regulator.  As children play, their associated thoughts, feelings and sensations arise.  Their nervous systems simultaneously become activated.  Some children move into sympathetic (flight or fight) activation, while others move towards a dorsal parasympathetic (collapse) response.  In these moments, we must be willing to move towards these uncomfortable states much like attuned caregivers who take deep breaths to ground themselves and then pick up a crying baby.   In doing so, we help regulate the hills and valleys of their emotions, helping their autonomic nervous systems learn how to respond.  The end result is the children get to experience what it feels like to move from a state of dysregulation back to a state of regulation.

Like the baby being rocked, our regulation of the child’s internal experience helps lay down or repattern the template for a stronger regulatory capacity. And it encourages our clients to rely on that template whenever stress enters the picture. In Synergetic Play Therapy, a paradigm of play therapy that focuses on neuroscience, attunement, mindfulness, and therapist authenticity, the foundation is simple: you’re the most important toy in the room. And part of your job, as this toy, is external regulation.

The next time you’re in a session and your child client’s nervous system becomes activated as they play, take a deep breath.  Allow yourself to become present.  Feel the experience of the play in your own body without attempting to move away from it, avoid it, or change it.   Move if you need to – gently rock or sway.  Your ability to stay connected to yourself in the midst of the intensity in the play is what will begin to regulate your client. And, with each breath, remember to rock the baby, even when that baby is disguised as a child.

Bullard, D. (2015). Allan Schore on the science of the art of psychotherapy. Retrieved from here.

Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S, is an international teacher and supervisor. She is the founder and President of the Play Therapy Institute of Colorado and creator of “Synergetic Play Therapy,” a model of play therapy bridging the gap between neuro-science and psychology. She is dedicated to advancing the play therapy field worldwide through her teachings, books, and research. She is the author of Aggression in Play Therapy: A Neurobiological Approach for Integrating Intensity, the host of the Lessons from the Playroom podcast and webinar series, and the recipient of the Association for Play Therapy’s 2015 Professional Education and Training Award.