Window of tolerance: How does it apply to my parenting?

Parents often report their traumatized child goes from 0 to 100 in a millisecond! Learn about the Window of Tolerance (Siegel) and how it influences behaviors.

Window of Tolerance

Window of tolerance describes the “various intensities of emotional arousal [that] can be processed without disrupting the functioning of the system.” (Siegel, 1999, p.253)

Siegel uses the analogy of a window to describe how one manages emotional arousal. When inside the window of tolerance, a person is able to self-regulate emotions, self-sooth, and cognitively process emotions and events. With too much arousal, the window narrows, and functioning decreases, as in less ability to self-regulate, self-sooth, or process events. Too much arousal indicates one is moving outside the window. Siegel describes this as the window has narrowed. Each person’s window depends on three factors; temperament, biology, and experiences.

Trauma and the Window of Tolerance

For traumatized children, two of the three factors, biology and experiences, may have been negatively influenced; creating vulnerability to intense emotion. Trauma can occur before a child is born via a mother’s stress, addictions, lack of nutrition, and exposure to environmental dangers. Each contribute to changing the child’s biology. After birth, trauma occurs experiential within the parent/child relationship. Again, instrumental in disrupting the child’s ability to manage arousal. This child may have been born with a more “narrow window” and after birth, the window further narrows. The child is, now, primed for threat. With any threat, real or perceived, an emotional response will be activated and the child is “outside the window.”  

Parents of traumatized children frequently express concern over their children’s inability to manage any emotional arousal (triggering event, thought, sensation, or memory). These triggers may not be obvious to others present.

Indicators of being outside the window (four emotional responses)

Hyperarousal

  1. Fight
    1. Aggression
    2. Intimidation
    3. Posturing
    4. Hostility
    5. Arguing
    6. Lying
    7. Exaggerates anger
  2. Flight
    1. “Who cares,” denying implications
    2. Hiding
    3. Withdrawal
    4. Avoidance
    5. Impulsivity
    6. Exaggerated sad/fear

Hypo-arousal

  1. Freeze
  1. Disassociation
  2. Verbal confusion, babbling
  3. Covering one’s face
  4. Inability to make decisions
  5. Immobility
  6. I don’t know

2. Fold

  1. Fatigue
  2. Hopeless
  3. Helpless
  4. Are often accompanied by a realignment of basic evaluations to facilitate toleration of the triggering event, for example: “I now enjoy having this person use my body for their pleasure. I can now increase my joy by seeking other people to use my body.” 

How can a parent help their child?

  1. Model how they (parent) manage emotions in a healthy way.
    1. Narrate their own experiences clearly for the child to understand.
      1. Pay attention to body signal
      2. Identify signals
      3. Determine stress level (in or out of a window)
      4. Label fear
      5. Demonstrate healthy management
  2. Pay attention to the child’s first signs of dysregulation (going outside of the window)
    1. Narrate the child’s experience
    2. Offer ways to help child regulate
      1. Offer comfort
      2. Suggest other ways to breathe
      3. Increase sensory interventions
      4. Increase physical activities
      5. Use Elements language to describe and mediate the experience
  3. When inside the window, work on widening the window
    1. Being more present in the moment (sensory awareness)
    2. Build trusting in the parent (safe haven, secure base)
    3. Journal experiences (focus on being reflective and having power to control)
    4. Help child find ways to be happier
      1. Increase endorphins (laughter, spices, chocolate)
      2. Increase Dopamine (creative, accomplishments)
      3. Increase Serotonin (bathing, being outdoors, massages-back rubs)
      4. Increase Oxytocin (touch, social interactions, uplifting music, finding a purpose)

Siegel, Daniel J., 1999. The Developing Mind. New York, Guilford Press.

© 2022, Jeff and Faye. All rights reserved.

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