Navigating Life with Compassion: Fostering a Friendship Between Self and Your Nervous System

By Christine Coyle | February 1, 2024

A Dysregulated Adult Cannot Regulate a Dysregulated Child

When you hear the words “mental health” what comes to mind? Does it prompt positive or negative thoughts? Does it make you think of something, someone, some time? Does it compel you to consider yourself, your family or friends, your community? 

The truth is mental health is many things. It is our well-being, our ability to cope with life stressors, our decision-making, our capacity to build and maintain relationships. It encompasses everything from our family of origin, our educational experiences, our extracurricular activities, our relationships, and life events. 

“Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress and potentially very different social and clinical outcomes.”

When it comes to children, determinants outside of their control impact their mental health. Parents, for example, have a significant effect on their children and their development. If parents do not attend to their own mental health, they may have a difficult time supporting their children. What parents model becomes their children’s habits, routines, and coping skills. Parents cannot exhibit maladaptive coping skills while simultaneously expecting their children to make healthy choices when it comes to their overall wellbeing.

It may be helpful to consider these elements as means to support your child’s mental health:

  • Balance compassion with resilience building
  • Provide structure as well as an openness for flexibility
  • Create an intentional, attuned environment alongside firm boundaries
  • Balance closeness with compliance
  • Offer both empathy and compassion
  • Foster active listening as well as open communication 
  • Model self care and acknowledge when additional support is needed

In order to successfully utilize the above-mentioned strategies, a person needs to understand how their nervous system functions as well as bring awareness to the parts of themselves that respond in times of stress. 

Befriending Our Nervous System

A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child.” 

Polyvagal Theory is…

As Deb Dana says, “Our nervous system is the foundation for all of our lived experiences.” We all have a nervous system and each individual’s system is unique to them. Building a relationship with and befriending our nervous system requires us to cultivate a relationship as well as continue to nurture and maintain it, as one would with a new friend. Our nervous systems have evolved over time and have become what drives connection when it feels safe, moves into fight or flight when it feels threatened, and disconnects when it needs to shut down.  

As children, we may not have learned how to befriend our nervous system. Now, as an adult and parent, I am building awareness of my nervous system responses in order to learn how to foster safe connection and communication (Ventral Vagal). This is our “home” according to Dana. There are times; however, when our system does not feel safe and goes “offline” because of a threat (Sympathetic). Our nervous system attempts to resolve the threat within this place, and if it cannot, we move into shut down (Dorsal Vagal) as a means of protection. It is important to remember that this is our biology, not our brain reacting. Because there is often shame attached to certain responses, it is important to understand that our responses are not under our control. 

Befriending their nervous system is important for parents because if they are dysregulated or unaware of their dysregulation, they cannot be expected to help their child move into a regulated state. When we have befriended our nervous system and have better awareness of when we are moving into dysregulation, we can employ relatively simple strategies to help move us into a more regulated state. Sighing is one such action. Whether a sigh of frustration or a sigh of relaxation, it can help us return to Ventral Vagal, a place of safety and connection.

Embracing Self Energy

The IFS Institute explains IFS as…

“A transformative tool that conceives every human being as a system of protective and wounded inner parts led by a core Self.” 

IFS believes…

“The mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing. Just like members of a family, inner parts are forced from their valuable states into extreme roles within us. Self is in everyone. It can’t be damaged. It knows how to heal.” 

IFS is also…

“A way of understanding personal and intimate relationships and stepping into life with the 8 Cs: confidence, calm, compassion, courage, creativity, clarity, curiosity, and connectedness.”

According to Internal Family Systems (IFS), at our core is our true Self. When we engage Self energy, we respond, communicate, and lead with clarity, curiosity, courage, confidence, compassion, calmness, connection, and creativity. Often, parts of us interfere with Self and our adaptive ways of functioning. Having said that, it’s important to understand that these parts are not bad. They are in fact working very hard for us, often in extreme ways, to protect us when we respond from a sympathetic place within our nervous system.

By understanding our parts’ roles and intentions for us, we can begin to explore what and who they protect. These are our most vulnerable parts that have been hurt, traumatized, or neglected in some way. We call these parts  exiles and are usually very young parts of ourselves. Exiles often hold inaccurate beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them. Our protectors do everything in their power to keep exiles from surfacing so that we do not feel pain again and not put in a position of vulnerability. 

It may sound counterintuitive but we actually need to provide space for our exiles to speak their truth, be seen and heard, and heal from long standing fear and pain. But first, we need to gain our protectors’ trust that Self will provide a safe place for our exiles to heal.

As parents, it is vital to build awareness of our own parts, both protectors and exiles, as well as learn to access Self energy. When we have done this work, we are more equipped to support our children to get to know their own parts and address whatever is affecting their mental health. When we model healthy and adaptive ways of healing, we not only help ourselves, but our children as well. 

For more information on this topic, please see book recommendations below:

  1. Anchored, by Deb Dana
  2. Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection, by Deb Dana
  3. Befriending Your Nervous System: Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory, by Deb Dana
  4. You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For, by Richard Schwartz
  5. No Bad Parts, by Richard Schwartz
  6. The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk



This blog is not a substitute for mental health therapy. It is used solely for the purpose of providing information that can help inform your therapeutic work.

About The Author

Christine Coyle

This blog was written by Christine Coyle, LCSW-C, the co-founder of Anchored Hope Therapy, LLC. Christine believes that building therapeutic rapport and creating a collaborative relationship are among the most important aspects of therapy. A client working with her may not jump right into what is traditionally considered “therapy” but instead, we will spend time working towards a mutual understanding of what works best for them. She allows clients to decide if the environment she has created feels safe for them to heal. Her goal with clients is to provide them with time and space to find their voice, identify boundaries that work for them, and to heal from the challenges they may be facing.