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  • Tami Sasson

How to Respond to your Dysregulated Child


I wish I had the quick fix to offer you here. It would be great if we could swing a magic wand and our children would all of a sudden calm down! But this is not the case. I define dysregulation as extreme temper tantrums, meltdowns, crying fits, anger outbursts and aggressive behaviors. It is important to explain some reasons why dysregulation occurs because from this understanding, we become better equipped to respond.

Two important things to note are that young children are not yet aware of how to integrate logic and emotion. They have only developed lower level functioning in their brains and are still learning how to integrate their rational mind. This means, they have large emotional responses not always rooted in logic. They don't have the access to higher level functioning in the brain, which means when we try to reason with them, we only get more frustrated and up in the cycle of power struggles. We experience this as adults as well. Picture yourself or someone else extremely emotional, hungry or angry. Now imagine trying to reason with them or have a rational conversation before they are able to calm down. 99.99999% of the time this is impossible. When our basic needs are not met, no matter what age, we resort to lower level functioning, meaning we react from emotion and not logic. Think about a time you had a conflict with someone with no explainable cause other than exhaustion, stress, hunger or overwhelming emotion. The difference here though is that as adults, we can typically tap into our logical brain once our need is met and self-regulate. Our kids can't do this so it is up to us to support their brain development by making these brain connections for them. This is how they begin to develop higher level functioning. The second fact that is important to note is that young children rely on adults for everything. They don't yet know how to identify and meet their own needs and again, it is our job to teach them this extremely critical life skill. When a child is dysregulated or is having an emotional or behavioral outburst, it is usually a sign that they have an unmet need. When we can begin seeing dysregulation as a form of communication, we are in a better position to act from a place of patience and compassion instead of frustration and overwhelm.

Here are 5 ways you can respond to both meet your child's needs and support their brain development:

1) Take a deep breathe and calm yourself before responding. When we react to dysregulation from a place of dysregulation, we are indirectly teaching our children that they are too much and should therefore shut down their emotions. This is not what we want! So, from that deep breathe, acknowledge that you see that they are upset. Think about basic needs and what might be the root of the dysregulation. Are they tired? hungry? hot? cold? in need of attention? overwhelmed? Go through a few and see if any of those work. If you hit the jackpot, you can target some brain development by saying, "seems like we get angry when we are hungry. Maybe we can try to have a snack around this time." This supports them in integrating their lower and higher levels of brain functioning.

2) Never try to reason with your child when they are dysregulated. It will only escalate the situation for both parties! Focus on calming them down first. Encourage them to take 5 deep breathes with you. Count out loud. Make lion noises when you exhale. Start to act silly and make funny faces. Do jumping jacks and encourage them to follow. Put on their favorite song and start dancing. The goal is to shift them from dysregulation to a place of regulation so you can address what is happening. We are not ignoring the experience but instead working to address the experience when your child is in a space where they can listen. When your child is calm, then you can address their experience by validating it and working together to meet the need. This not only strengthens your relationship with your child but teaches them how to respond to their own needs in a caring way.

3) Fight the urge to send them away to "calm down." If we are going to choose to do "time-out," let's make it a "time-in." We don't want to punish for dysregulation because as mentioned above, they are doing the best they can. If we send them away for being upset, then we are not addressing how to deal with our emotions in a healthy way. If they are engaging in unsafe behaviors and we want to give them a break, we can go with them! Sometimes removing them from the situation is the best thing to do until they can calm down, especially if they are acting out. We can simply just be there with them, doing nothing. This sends the message that all of their experiences are welcome and they are loved unconditionally. Once they calm down, we can address the behaviors that were unacceptable and also address the cause of the dysregulation.

4) All behavior has a function! Whether it is intentional or unintentional, it is functional. Children communicate to us through their behaviors before they can communicate through language. When babies cry, it signals they have a need. Our kids are the same. Until they can learn to express their needs verbally, they are going to do so with behavior. So a good question to begin asking yourself is, "what's the function?" Are they trying to get out of bedtime? Do they need a little extra attention? Are they mad? Whatever the reason may be, we must address the need so we can teach them how to do so for themselves. This by no means insinuates that we give them whatever they want because they are dysregulated. Structures and boundaries are extremely important but it does mean that we take advantage of the teachable moment. We can say, "it's still bedtime but I will cuddle a little longer."

5) Take a time-out for yourself! Teachable moments are about responding skillfully, lovingly and effectively. If we can't do that in the moment, then removing ourselves until we can is a better option. We always want to avoid the never ending power struggles. Everyone loses. Remember we can't reason with emotion and when we try to do so, we deplete our energy reserves. You can say, "I see your having a hard time. I need to use the bathroom and will return." Or, "I love you so much and am going to get daddy/mommy." The two things to consider are making sure your child is safe and not leaving angrily and abruptly. Once everyone is calm, dig up that teachable moment and make some connections for your child. Reflect with them and problem solve for future situations. When we model caring for ourselves, we teach our kids to do the same.

The common theme of all of these strategies is that dysregulation is communication and we get to choose how we respond. Things arise in our lives every day that are opportunities for us to teach our children how to take care of their emotional health and how to integrate logic with emotion. As adults, many of us were not taught how to show up like this. We didn't have parents that responded in this way and it does not feel natural. The more we practice, the more natural it will feel. It is our job to teach our children how to self-regulate and care for themselves. They learn what they see, not what we tell them so it calls for us to look at how we are dealing with our own emotions! We can practice these strategies on ourselves and be better equipped to act in the moment. Our children are doing the best they can. They are not going out of their way to make our lives difficult. All behavior has function! Let's practice patience first with ourselves and then with our children! This is invaluable for their development, self-esteem and sense of self.