Understanding and supporting a child who is dysregulated can be challenging. Put simply, dysregulation means the child’s emotional responses and behaviors are not in sync with what’s expected or needed in a given situation. It’s important to understand that all children can have moments of dysregulation, but consistent and intense patterns might indicate a need for additional support or intervention.
The Stress Response
The stress response system, primarily governed by the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, plays an important role in how we react to stressors. Let’s explore these in more detail:
Amygdala: The amygdala acts as an alert system, gauging whether something poses a threat, leading to a natural response of caution or fear. This response, deeply rooted in our survival instincts, varies from person to person and is influenced by individual experiences and temperaments. When faced with a stressor, the amygdala triggers a stress response, signaling the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
Prefrontal Cortex: This region is involved in functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and regulating emotional responses. The prefrontal cortex helps modulate the stress response initiated by the amygdala, essentially acting as a mediator that can either amplify or dampen the response.
This interaction between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex is crucial in determining our reactions to stress. For instance, in a well-regulated system, the prefrontal cortex can effectively manage the emotional intensity from the amygdala, leading to a more measured response to stress. However, under intense or chronic stress, this regulation can be compromised, leading to more pronounced stress responses.
Steps to Support a Dysregulated Child
Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist known for her parenting guidance, emphasizes a compassionate and empathetic approach when dealing with a dysregulated child. Her method typically involves the following steps:
Recognizing Dysregulation: First, it’s important to recognize the signs of dysregulation in a child. This can manifest as tantrums, crying, yelling, or other forms of emotional outbursts. Understanding that these behaviors are a sign of overwhelming emotions is key.
Staying Calm Yourself: Remain calm and composed. Children often look to their parents for cues on how to regulate their emotions. If a parent stays calm, it helps the child feel more secure and understood.
Validation and Empathy: Instead of immediately trying to fix the situation or dismiss the child’s feelings, validate their emotions. This involves acknowledging their feelings and showing empathy. Statements like “I see you’re really upset” or “It’s okay to feel angry” can be validating, but be sure to maintain boundaries here as well. In other words, what will you allow/not allow in this moment. Remember you can only control how you respond.
Co-regulation: This is a process where a parent helps a child regulate their emotions by being physically and emotionally present. It could involve soothing words, a calm presence, or a comforting touch.
Teaching Emotional Regulation Skills: Once the child is calmer, it’s an opportunity to teach them about managing their emotions. This can be done through age-appropriate discussions, teaching deep breathing techniques, or identifying triggers.
Reflecting on the Experience: After the situation has been resolved, reflect on the experience with the child. This could involve discussing what happened, what they felt, and how they can handle similar situations in the future.
Consistency and Patience: Consistently applying these methods is key. Emotional regulation is a skill that takes time to develop, and patience is crucial in this process.
Of course, when a child is dysregulated, it can trigger a stress response in a parent. This reaction is both natural and common.
A Personal Note
You know those days that start with a bang and just spiral from there? Well, today was one of those days. My ToDo list was already rivaling the length of a toddler’s Christmas wish list, and then my 4-year-old decided to throw a curveball: “Mommy, my ear hurts.” So, school was off the table.
There I was, coffee in one hand, a mountain of tasks in the other, and a little guy needing TLC. My stress response kicked in like a caffeine shot – the unhelpful thoughts were having a field day. After a deep breath (and a quick internal pep talk), I told my son about my busy day, hoping we could find a balance. He, bless his heart, decided to work on a ‘very important’ project at his desk.
Cue the creative chaos.
Before I knew it, markers were auditioning for the Cirque du Soleil across the room, and crumpled paper balls were staging a protest on the floor. My son’s amygdala was clearly in the driver’s seat, and let me tell you, it was not heading to Calmville. And there I was, standing in the eye of the storm, feeling my own big feelings brewing.
In that moment, I wanted to yell. Oh, did I want to yell. But I also wanted to be the parent who responds, not reacts. It’s like being in a high-stakes game where you have to wait for your logic brain (hello, prefrontal cortex) to log back in.
So, I paused.
I reminded myself that these are the moments that test us, that push us to embrace the adrenaline and find our way back to logic. And, you know what? Taking that extra time to connect with my little artist amidst the chaos didn’t just help in the moment; it was an investment in our long-term relationship.
Today wasn’t about crossing things off my list; it was about finding calm in the chaos, about markers and mayhem, and about being the mom I want to be – even when it’s hard. And hey, we even ended up with some avant-garde art for the fridge!