Self-regulation begins with evolutionary perspective because we need to start with what is hardwired in us and our basic brain system has been around a long time and links us together, so in different places across the world and in different parts of the world and at different times have all been rather similar. We all have the same neural set up with a brain stem or ‘reptilian brain’ which is automatic and enables us to flight, fight, freeze and this cannot be accessed by neo-cortex, only limbic system. When basic survival needs are not met, or perceived not be be met the reptilian brain takes over. Our limbic system enables us (or at least our neocortex) to ‘talk down’ our reptilian brain.
When notice our basic needs only when they are not met – then we feel anxious or fearful, our limbic system is alerting our thinking mind that something key to our physical and psychological well being isn’t being met. Only when we psychologically experience that our basic needs can be met are we able to focus on our growth needs. Until then our energy is used up in conscious or unconscious concerns about meeting our basic needs. One key difference between children and adults is that they are not able as readily able to meet their own physical and emotional needs, they rely on other people (parents, caregivers, teachers) for their emotional and physical safety – their physical existence and their emotions depend on us and therefore what we do helps them to regulate as young children and older children when they are overwhelmed or feel vulnerable.
From an evolutionary perspective only when we had physical needs met could we begin to develop our knowledge and culture. Only when children are physically and psychologically comfortable can they learn information and skills and develop positive social behaviour. As adults, Maslow’s triangle of needs comes into play, we need to secure what he called the ‘basic’ needs before the ‘being’ needs – that is to self-actualise and be in the world with minimum fear and anxiety, so we can be the best we can be, have meaning and significance.
‘Man’s higher nature rests on his lower nature, needing it as a foundation… The best way to develop this higher nature is to fulfil and gratify the lower one first’
Maslow, A. H. – Towards a Psychology of Being 1963
I used to be quite triggered by the idea that Maslow was saying that only people with their physical needs met could enjoy their emotional and spatial needs, as excluding people with few physical resources from emotional and spiritual satisfaction, but now I have come to a new understanding, I think he means only those who perceive their physical needs to be fulfilled can enjoy emotional wellbeing. If you are living very simply, perhaps a subsistence existence but you perceive yourself to be safe you can relax, you can meditate. The implication for children is that we do not need to have complex ways of meeting all their needs with material items but we must ensure that they perceive themselves to be safe. This is a gift adults working with children need to learn to find in themselves and then model to those depending on them. Once we can find and transmit this hardwiring for being safe we can sustain our regulation and contribute to sustaining our external relationships and environment.