How to Support a Child in a Dysregulated Emotional State

We all have those days where things that usually wouldn’t bother us tip us over the edge, right?! Everyone feels out of sorts, at times — our kids included!

So much of being a parent is learning as we go — but this is one thing I hope I’ve been able to get a head start on for you, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did when my firstborn was little.

DISCLAIMER: In this post, I’m not talking about dysregulation as a disorder — I’m referring to the naturally occurring emotional dysregulation that stems from children still learning strategies for coping with their everyday life experiences.

And let’s be honest… they’re not the only ones still learning — I know I am, too!

WE ARE NOT BORN WITH THE ABILITY TO SELF-REGULATE


First and foremost, it helps so much to know what we can expect from our children — and the ability to self-regulate is not developed in the early human years. Babies and young children require a trusted caregiver to provide them with a sense of safety and security in order to process and cope with their emotional responses to everyday experiences.

Coregulation is key!

WE MUST FIRST COREGULATE IN ORDER TO DE-ESCALATE


When an experience evokes stress or fear in a young child, however small or minor the situation may seem, it can temporarily block access to the part of their brain responsible for self-awareness, impulse control, empathy and rational thinking. (Research prefrontal cortex development to learn more!)

COMMON CAUSES FOR A CHILD’S DYSREGULATION


Here are a few things that can cause stress in a child’s nervous system and lead them to become dysregulated:

• over-tiredness
• hunger
• excitement
• busy schedules
• new environments
• interruptions
• changes in routine
• phases of transition
• new baby in the family
• separation from primary caregiver(s)
• stress/dysregulation in primary caregiver(s)
• physical discomfort (clothing, car seat, etc.)
• etc.

HOW TO SPOT IT EARLY


If we are attentive to a child’s behavior, we will often be able to catch their subconscious cries for help.

• hyperactivity
• tense smiling
• forced laughing
• over-silliness
• quicker to cry
• easily frustrated
• trouble staying focused
• defiance/saying “no” more often
• avoiding eye-contact
• hitting/biting/pinching
• acting unlike themselves
• etc.

SHORT-TERM RESPONSES


As soon as you begin to read the signals of a child’s emotional dysregulation, here are some things you can focus on as a short-term/immediate response:

• focus on staying regulated yourself
• offer your calming, understanding presence
• slow your pace, lower your tone of voice
• welcome any emotional outbursts (this releases tension!) while holding necessary boundaries
• find a quiet place (outside in nature if possible!)
• offer sensory experiences, such as taking a bath, kneading dough, dancing to music together, …)
• etc.

LONG-TERM RESPONSES


Getting to a tension-free place doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, becoming dysregulated from time to time is as natural as the tensions we face in this imperfect life.

Yet, there are ways we can contribute to a more regulated state in our homes. Here are a few ways we can be proactive, as well as some long-term responses to help support a child through their emotional dysregulation.

• model healthy ways of self-care and -regulation
• include windows for winding down on busy days
• support them to sleep before they get over-tired
• put yourself in their shoes and reflect upon anything they might be dealing with right now that could leave them feeling out of sorts
• fill their connection tank
• create space for independent play
• etc.

A CHILD’S REGULATION TOOLBOX


Understanding that behavior typically viewed as “unacceptable” is often a child self-regulating, can help us offer our support or redirection instead of shutting them down in their process of returning to a more balanced state.

• licking things
• jumping around
• humming
• singing
• wiggling
• being close
• playing with food
• spinning
• asking questions
• telling stories
• etc.

Check out @thrivinglittles to learn more!

EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT


An experience that may leave one child feeling extremely dysregulated, might not cause another to bat an eye.

Learning about your child’s temperament (and if perhaps, they might be highly sensitive) can be very helpful in finding ways to support them through their everyday experiences.

Check out @kaitlinklimmer to learn more!

LEAN INTO THE TENSION


Investing in a more peaceful home often requires us to, first, lean into the tension as we welcome the state our kids are in. (This does not mean we shouldn’t also set healthy boundaries!)

It can be so challenging, and none of us succeed at it 100% of the time — so give yourself some grace as you go/grow!

Wholeheartedly, 

P.S. You can find this post on Instagram here.

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