Home » Allostasis and Metastasis – the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation

Allostasis and Metastasis – the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation

This is a post about a paper that is coming out soon in Development and Psychopathology. You can read the actual article here.

The idea for this article started, as is depressingly getting more common nowadays, with me getting cross about something. In this case it was the realisation of how incredibly poorly, when you think about it, the techniques that we use for measuring a child’s self regulation abilities map on to self regulation as it is actually used in the real world.

Normally, we (in my lab and in most labs) assess a child’s capacity for self-regulation of emotion using experiments such as a toy removal task. A child is allowed to play with a toy before an experimenter takes it and places it out of reach, before returning it after a time interval. The same sequence is presented across a number of discrete but contiguous trials, and the child’s behavioural and physiological responses are averaged.

Compare this, though, with similar example which would actually occur in the real world – say, a child tantrumming at not being allowed to buy a toy while out shopping. A child might pick up a toy, and announce that they want it; their parent, tired and in a hurry, might abruptly say ‘no’, and attempt to take the toy off them, perhaps leading to a physical tug of war. The child might lose this, sit down with a bump, and burst out crying. Or, they might start bashing the toy on the floor and break it; others in the shop might turn around to look at the noise.

So what are the differences between the two version? Well, here are two important things to start with. First, in the experimental version, it is the experimenter who decides when the ‘stressor’ starts, and when it finishes. But in the real world things don’t just flash on and off in a predetermined sequence, and there is no experimenter controlling things: even young children are active agents.

The second is that there was just one stressor in the experimental task – whereas in the real-world example there was a series of interconnected events. Being abruptly told ‘no’, a tug of war, sitting down with a bump, making a loud noise, being stared at by strangers – these are all separate, but interconnected, stressors. The toy removal is just a trigger for an ongoing cascade featuring multiple interconnected causative factors.

So how can we think about self regulation in a way that is more similar to how we actually use self regulation in the real world? In this article, building on excellent work from others, we lay some of the groundwork for studying ‘real-world’ self regulation as an active, dynamic process. We contrast two mechanisms that underpin it: the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of self-regulation.

The first is allostasis, through which we dynamically compensate for change to maintain stability – by upregulating in some situations and downregulating in others. The principle of allostatis is pretty simple: if I’m over-arousal I change my behaviours so as to seek out a lower level of arousal, and vice versa if I’m under-aroused. This might seem pretty obvious – but actually there are amazingly few demonstrations of even this quite basic principle in the literature.

Allostasis in action – from Gardner & Karmel

And second, metastasis, is basically the opposite of allostasis. It is the dynamical principle underling dysregulation. If allostasis is all about small initial increases and decreases in arousal becoming corrected for over time, metastatic processes are the opposite: they involve small initial increases and decreases in arousal becoming amplified over time. This might happen through our interactions with the outside world – think, for example, of a young, agitated child banging their spoon on the table at mealtimes, which seems to agitate them still further. Or, it can happen through our interactions with other people. Think, for example, of a frazzled family shouting at each other in the car – which just makes everybody even more frazzled.

Intuitively (speaking as the parent of two young children) it seems to be blindingly obvious that these types of metastatic processes are taking place all the time. And some of our data suggests that it’s likely that they are. But, as we argue in the article, there really is very little research that’s looked at this systematically — which is weird and a shame, because this is obviously as useful idea for intervention design.

Anyway, that’s the article! You can read the whole thing here.

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