You just confronted your child about the candy wrappers you found in his or her room. (You don’t allow eating in the bedrooms.) Your child flies of the handle and starts screaming, “I hate you! You don’t love me.”
The stimulation at the arcade birthday party was too great. All the sugar in the cake is wreaking havoc. Your child is going nuts and just darted across the parking lot.
You are in the grocery store and politely ask you child to put back the bag of chips he or she just put in the car. Your child falls to the floor in a heap and starts sobbing.
All of these are examples of dysregulation in children. What is dysregulation? It is the inability of your child to manage his or her emotions in a predictable or acceptable way. It is the child’s fight (example one), flight (example two), or freeze (example three) response to what the brain perceives as a threat. Children who have experienced trauma typically have heightened awareness to perceived threat and therefore increased reactions to it.
So what do you do?
First of all, have grace for yourself as a parent of a child who struggles with dysregulation. There are some situations that you just can’t prevent, and some melt-downs that just can’t be solved. But when you do think you can intervene, here are a few practical ways to help your child regulate.
- Offer a hug. (Offer, because some children will not want to be touched when dysregulated, and in some cases, the child may respond violently to having his or her space invaded. In that case, give space and offer soothing words to remind the child of your presence. For example, say, “I am here.” “I love you.,” etc.). Hugging releases oxytocin, the chemical in the human brain that promotes happiness. Therefore offering a hug may just provide the happiness your child needs to calm down and re-regulate. (Reference links: https://www.amazon.com/Integrative-Parenting-Strategies-Children-Attachment/dp/0393708179 , https://www.healthline.com/health/hugging-benefits#1)
- Try a grounding exercise. Ask what your child hears, sees, smells, touches or tastes. If your child is dysregulated to an extent that he or she cannot speak, try offering up your own observations. Grounding can bring the child back to the present moment and help promote calm.
- Provide a cup of water or a small snack. Karyn Purvis, the founder of Trust-based Relational Intervention, suggests that having basic needs met helps children feel safe. By offering food and drink, you are helping your child know that you are present and providing for his or her needs. (Link: https://child.tcu.edu/nutrition-and-hydration/#sthash.bvjefeJe.dpbs)
- Take some deep breaths. Some children are able to take deep breaths when upset. Others are not. If you as a parent model some deep breaths, your child may join you. If nothing else, the calm you gain in this moment may transfer to your child, as children co-regulate their emotions with their parents. (Link: https://www.nichq.org/insight/childrens-social-and-emotional-development-starts-co-regulation).
- Squirrel! Sometimes all children need is a distraction. Try telling a joke. Sing a song. Make animals with your hands. Read a book. Try something that will move the focus away from the current “crisis.”
After all is done and the child is calm? Try not to jump right into lecturing your child. Try to relate to the child and express love. Make time later, and preferably out of the perceived “threatening” situation to address the matter and talk to your child about what he or she might do better next time.
-Sarah Earles, MS, LAC, Child and Family Therapist