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Updated: Feb 20

Gaining traction in recent years, the Polyvagal Theory is used to understand the connection between the autonomic nervous system and the behavior of children and adults. It offers a framework to understand that the autonomic nervous system regulates the body’s response to stress, fear, and other emotional states. The Polyvagal Theory has been used to explain how a child’s behavior is influenced by their environment and their relationships with their parents and other caregivers. This blog will explore the connection between the Polyvagal Theory and parental support for their children.

Understanding The Polyvagal Theory

Dr. Stephen Porges developed the Polyvagal Theory in the early 1990s. This theory suggests that the autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body’s response to stress, fear, and other emotional states.


Social Engagement System is the latest evolution to being human, about 200 million years old. While it is not necessary for “survival,” in the traditional sense, it is essential for our survival because it helps us enjoy, connect and thrive.   It is sometimes described as our face-to-heart connection. The ventral vagus is made up of the links between the vagus nerve and muscles in our face and head. This controls our facial expressions and muscles that control how we listen (auditory) and how we speak (vocalization).


The Sympathetic Nervous System helps us mobilize or take action when we experience danger cues. This is generally considered 400 million years old and was part of survival.  When this becomes activated, we are flooded with chemicals that give us an adrenaline kick. We can run away (flight mode) or prepare to engage with the threat in front of us (fight mode).


Dorsal Vagal can become activated when there are continuing cues of threat, danger, and diminished resilience in the nervous system. Also called our “lizard brain,” it is about 500 million years old.   It moves us further away from connection and into protection. When we experience a cue of extreme danger or life threat, we can shut down and feel numb or frozen; we have moved into a dorsal vagal state.

Fight or Flight Response

The autonomic nervous system is responsible, as explained by The Polyvagal Theory, for regulating the body’s response to stress, fear, and other emotional states. When a person is in a state of fear or anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body prepares for fight-or-flight. While the person is in a state of safety and security, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body can rest and digest.

However, when the person is in a state of social engagement, the ventral vagal complex is activated, and the body is able to connect with themselves and others in an open and curious way.

The Connection Between the Polyvagal Theory and Parent Support

Parents being present for children, taking a break from devices, and giving “serve and return” engagement helps the child’s nervous system scaffold and build a strong foundation for regulating the body’s response to stress, fear, and other emotional states. This means games or engagements where one of you does something and the other does something back.


1. BABY: Think peekaboo for a baby who will happily do this for hours.  They are still learning that when they don’t see something (you) that you are still there in the world.  This is a safe way to teach them that the stress of not seeing you is a safe stress because you will return.  It also lets them know that you will consistently keep coming back.

2. TODDLER: Ever play roll the ball with a toddler?  They will do this all day long, being able to get it to you and watching your clap and appreciate what they have done and then send it back to them and clap and engage again that they have caught it is another example of what Harvard’s Child Development team calls “serve and return.”   This is priceless not only for the connection with the child but builds their self-esteem, which also changes the way that their brain will actually wire for future engagements and learning.

3. OLDER KIDS:  Have you ever watched a movie with your child/children, and during a funny scene, they look to you to see what your reaction is, even if this is a serve-and-return moment.  They want to know that you are having a shared experience while watching the movie; when they turn and see you are engaged in the movie and see them looking at you, they are happy at any age.

How can we as parents help to regulate ourselves so we are comfortable in our own brain and body to be present for our children?

When a child is in a state of fear or stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the body prepares for fight-or-flight. In this state, the child is unable to process and regulate their emotions, and they may act out in order to cope with their fear and stress. This is where the parent’s role is important. A parent’s support and understanding can help the child to regulate their emotions and move out of the fight-or-flight state.

Here are some ideas!

1. Favorite hobby or athletic endeavor, even better if it’s a group activity with friends.  What’s that?  You don’t remember what you like since you have had kids?  You are not alone!  Here’s the great news, getting out in social engagement is not only going to strengthen your own nervous system resilience, but it’s going to give your children a healthy nervous system to model.

2. Walk in nature- 5 minutes if you have time for more, great!

3. Step away from devices; they can be unconsciously stressful for many of us.

4. Call a friend who makes you smile

5. Watch something funny and take a break from the news.

6. Remember that everything we ingest, with our eyes, ears, mouth, neuroception (perceived sense of safety around our bodies) are all affecting our regulation and resilience.  Choose wisely!

A child’s nervous system is very much raw and unformed when they are born.  As parents, our goal is to provide a safe and secure environment for the child to explore and learn. We also are often forced to address our own dysregulated nervous systems so we can also provide emotional support and understanding to help the child process and regulate their emotions.  When they are yelling, and we yell louder, we end up in a circle of them feeling shamed, frightened, and a lasting understanding that expressing their bigger emotions is not safe.


By understanding the connection between the Polyvagal Theory and our nervous systems, we can better understand our child’s behavior and provide the support they need.  We constantly miss these opportunities to support them because we are in fight/flight or shut down. This unintentionally creates constant stress and patterning that creates space between where we would like to be parents and where we spend our daily parenting lives.

Small changes like the ones above in interactions with our children and tools to support ourselves can be life-changing!

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