Engaging the Disengaged Using Dr Bruce Perry’s 3Rs

In my professional and personal life, I have witnessed (and experienced) the workings of a dysregulated nervous system when humans are dealing with stressful experiences. Sometimes, the stressful experience is simply hearing the word ‘no!’ At other times, it can be something much more significant. Sometimes, the nervous system appears hyper-aroused, with an agitated and reactive response to the stressor (flight/flight), resulting in some form of explosive outburst or the person retreating rapidly from a perceived threat. At other times, the nervous system appears hypo-aroused, resulting in a withdrawn or frozen presentation, like the person’s mouth had been stapled shut! One thing I quickly learned was that when I was with another dysregulated human being, not matter their age, it was futile to do too much talking.  

Dr Bruce Perry, a pioneering neuroscientist in the field of childhood trauma, argues that to help a vulnerable child to learn, think and reflect, we need to intervene in a simple sequence that he refers to as the 3Rs. He maintains that we must focus heavily on building safe, respectful, trusting, and predictable relationships as the foundation of helping others who are highly stressed or traumatised. Although this was a model developed for traumatised children, Dr Perry’s 3Rs work for all human beings who are dealing with internal and external stressors. I use the 3Rs in my own personal and professional relationships, and they have not failed me yet. They are at the heart of how I build relationships in the therapy room, with students in schools, and with my children when they were growing up. Importantly, they are also at the heart of the relationship that I have with myself.  

So, what is Dr Perry’s 3Rs sequence? How can we generalise it beyond his concept of helping traumatised children? How can we use the 3Rs to engage the disengaged, when they are experiencing a dysregulated nervous system.  

  1. Regulate (Red for Stop):  
  • When you are with someone in a hyper or hypo aroused state, it is natural that your nervous system starts to also feel stressed, and you may also become dysregulated. First check in with your own nervous system state. Move away from the stressor if needed/able and calm yourself first (e.g., slow deep breathing, grounding yourself in the present moment). Only a regulated person can help others to regulate their flight/fight/freeze experience.  
  • Use soothing but limited language. Encourage children to move to their safe calming space where they have access to comforting blankets or soft toys.  For adults and teens, call a ‘time-out’ so everyone has the space to process and calm their dysregulated state.  
  • Regulating the nervous system is unique to each person and may take a few minutes or many hours or even a day. A teen may play some heavy metal music on their guitar, listen to their favourite rap playlist or retreat to their room. A child may bounce out their anger on a trampoline or kick a ball against a garden wall. Adults may go for a run, meditate, sit outdoors or in nature, or have a cup of tea in a quiet space. Little children may like to read, colour, or cuddle their soft toys. The point is to move away from each other and do an activity that soothes the nervous system, so our brainstem begins to settle and return to homeostasis.  
  • Screens are not recommended for little or big people! It’s not about distracting yourself but about recognising and accepting the struggle happening inside you and letting it settle.

  1. Relate (Orange for Go Carefully - because retriggering is possible):
  • When everyone is a little (or lot) calmer, we need to re-establish a safe and trusting connection with the person who was dysregulated.
  • This will look different for each developmental stage and type of relationship.  
  • For a teen, it might mean that you make them a snack and simply pop it in their room and say that you thought they might be thirty or hungry and you want to make sure they are okay. Don’t expect much more than a grunt but they will appreciate it deep down inside. You will soon get to talk through the issue that caused the dysregulated state but not before reconnection is established.  
  • With little children, you can tell them how proud you are that they went to their calm down space and settled their big feelings and sensations. If they are still a bit upset, ask if they would like you to read them their favourite story or if they would like a snack/drink. They might want a cuddle or a tickle on their arm. You will soon be able to talk through what happened once they feel the safe and caring connection with you.  
  • Sometimes we can reflect how we think a person might be feeling and how hard it appeared to be for them to manage the situation or problem they were having. This shows empathy and care.  
  • These types of reconnecting interactions communicate unconditional care and concern. It tells the limbic brain, the emotional regulation brain, that we are attuned to the person we are with and the connection with them strengthens. The limbic system responds positively to the empathising and validating experience because the person feels they are seen, heard, and understood.

  1. Reason (Green for Go – address what happened):
  • Finally, it is time for discussion and reflection on what happened.
  • Listen to their version of the experience and reflect what you hear so they know you are really listening.  
  • You may not agree but you can validate by stating that ‘what they did was one way to solve the problem’ or perhaps add that ‘sometimes when you are scared or angry, you might be tempted to do the same thing.’
  • Focus on any part that was managed well and offer lots of praise and encouragement to reinforce the ongoing use of these strategies.  
  • Ask what they could have done differently and if they aren’t sure, share your observations or ask if they are okay for you to provide what you might have done.  
  • Take opportunities to talk about emotional regulation tools by normalising and validating that it can be tricky to use them when we most need to.  
  • Engage the person to find solutions to problems without lecturing them and telling them what to do. Listen and comment positively on at least one idea and then add another option that they might like to consider. Negotiate and compromise.  
  • Discuss any hurt or harm caused and what they want to do about it so that everyone feels better, including them. At this point, children and teens will need to face the consequences that might need to be implemented e.g., picking up any mess made, not getting another phone because they lost theirs.  
  • Be careful not to re-trigger the person you are with. Look for verbal and non-verbal cues they may be dysregulating again, and if this is happening, reassure them that you want to listen more and understand, and it is safe to talk about all their thoughts, feelings, and choices.  
  • Call another time-out if needed and try again later.  
  • When we do this well, the cortical brain, the great thinking brain, can reflect without feeling shame. The person is more able to listen and learn without getting defensive. Mistakes are owned and blame drops. The person is more likely to take responsibility to repair any harm caused. They will generate good ideas for how to handle the issue better next time.  

Since learning Dr Perry’s 3Rs, I came to realise that I used to skip straight to step 3 without doing the first two steps. Most people I talk to have done the same. If you go through the sequence in the right order, you will have more success communicating and supporting those you care about. It sounds easier than it is, so keep practicing and learning and growing in competence. Those you care about are worth it!

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