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Co-Regulation & Polyvagal Ladder

Co-Regulation and the Polyvagal Ladder

By Justine Kroeker

The Polyvagal Ladder is a theory on stress broken down to its physiology originally designed by Dr Stephen Porges. It can be broken down into four main parts: safe and social, flight, fight, and shutdown. Kids can be sent down the Polyvagal Ladder in times of stress or after experiencing trauma. A child’s readiness to drop down the ladder differs depending on who the child is, the trick is to know the signs and know how to bring them back up the ladder.

To begin: safe and social. In a safe and social state, neurotypical children are able to engage with others. A crucial factor in this is that when referring to safety, it is PERCEIVED safety, not ACTUAL safety. A child may know they’re safe, but due to past experiences, they may not feel safe.

If a child doesn’t feel safe, they will first drop down to flight mode. This means they will try to evade the situation they’re in. This could be as direct as running away, or as indirect as going to another corner of the room.

If they cannot escape the situation, a child may next drop down to fight mode. Fight mode can be literally starting a fight, or it could be more subtle, like being more aggressive.

Lastly, there’s shutdown mode. If flight and fight don’t work, the child may shut down. Oftentimes, this involves completely disengaging from the situation or activity. It acts as self-protection by removing themselves from the source of the threat. Remember, it’s about perceived threat, not actual threat.

An important thing to remember is that ANYTHING can send your child down the ladder. Perhaps their toy isn’t where they left it, or things didn’t go as planned. To us, it seems trivial. You think, “Just go look for the toy!” But for a child, they may not have the capacity to think critically, because misplacing the toy has sent them down the ladder already. Consider this: if you went outside and your car was not where you left it, you would panic. It may be just for a moment, as you remember you parked somewhere else the night before, but your heart would race, and you might start running around trying to find it. That’s exactly what happens to your child when something doesn’t go as planned. Maybe they go down the ladder because getting on the bus scares them (Where will I sit? Will there be a spot? Will my bully be there?), or an assignment is intimidating (I don’t know what to do! Will my parents help me? Will I fail?). Everything in life has pieces that may be scary, or may cause your child to drop down the ladder.

You have stronger regulatory abilities than your child, so you should use it to your advantage! When in crisis, which is better: having someone else there running around screaming about how you’re overreacting, or a calm person who says “Wow! This is frustrating. How about I help you?” It will always be the second one.

Co-regulation is critical in both RDI therapy and Polyvagal theory. To help a child return to a safe and social state, there must be someone who can co-regulate with them. Examples of co-regulating to a safe and social state would be smiling genuinely, talking to them calmly, and using a prosodic voice. Things may vary for your child, and trust that you know what works for you.


About Justine:

Hi, I’m Justine, I’m currently in my third year doing Psychology with a certificate in Human Services. I’ve worked with children for eight years, and have recently found my passion in working with children who have autism. Learning about RDI therapy has been influential in my work and life, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity to learn more about it!

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