Got A Dysregulated Child? Or Do THEY Have A Dysregulated Grown-Up?
“I’m ok, you’re ok”, or so the saying goes.
But what if you’re not ok or your kids are not ok? Because the alternative, “It’s ok not to be ok”, will only take you so far.
We can’t know (or practice) enough about emotional regulation, self-regulation and more importantly ‘co-regulation’: the art of bringing a dysregulated child into your regulated state, rather than joining them in theirs.
Co-regulation sounds easy when things are going well.
But the general demands of life knock most of us off-course on a regular basis, before we even add our child’s meltdown or anxiety attack or angry outburst into the mix.
Thus ‘co-regulation’ can go out of the window when it matters the most.
Instead we can end up in overdrive ourselves, matching our overwhelmed child with our own state of overwhelm; shouting, being irrational, panicking or just feeling defeated and disconnecting.
There seems to be a lot of dysregulated kids (and parents!) around at the moment.
The niggles with school transitions are starting to show up, festive excitement is building, and the cold dark weather means that many aren’t getting the time outside that helps their nervous systems to regularly reset.
So today I’m sharing five tips for self and co-regulation that are worth keeping on the mental shelf for those dysregulated moments:
- Stay Self-Aware
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the truth is that most of us aren’t regularly checking in with ourselves.
If we’re already juggling too many balls, carrying the weight of other people’s ‘stuff’, or feeling triggered by another stressor, it doesn’t take much to tip us over the edge.
Furthermore, our kids tends to subconsciously pick up on our emotional states and mirror them back to us, creating all the ingredients for the kind of experience that doesn’t serve anyone.
- Stay In Empathy
This can be especially difficult when the source of your child’s complaint is that they can’t have pizza for breakfast, or another set of football cards to add to the 7000 they already own, or can’t rock up to school when they feel like it.
It’s easy to just dismiss our child as OTT, being silly or ‘ridiculous’.
You’re right, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that your child is in distress or pain, regardless, and for as long as their nervous system is in disarray, they won’t be able to regulate or calm down.
Forget about the details and just connect to your child’s truth in that moment.
Don’t Try To Problem-Solve
It can be very distressing witnessing our child in distress, and so very easy to move straight into ‘How do we make this stop?’ territory.
But your child’s brain is not in problem-solving, logical or decision-making mode (which explains why they can fiercely resist everything we offer to make things better).
Trying to fix it right there and then is usually futile.
Instead, hold in mind that your child’s subconscious brain is activating its own panic-alarm, so before anything meaningful can change, it needs to feel safe again.
Focus on connection, comfort, reassurance, or just staying close, and leave problem-solving for later (bearing in mind it can take 24 hours or more for them to ‘recover’ from these episodes!)
Our kids can say and do very alarming things when dysregulated; they might throw the worst insults or share their ugliest thoughts or beliefs. I’m not suggesting you dismiss those things; only you can make the call as to whether it needs further attention or input.
But when we get hijacked by what’s being said literally, e.g. by trying to talk them out of that bad feeling, we don’t usually connect with what else is being communicated.
Dysregulation is often coded behaviour for words our kids don’t have; I feel vulnerable, I’m fed-up, I’m lonely, I’m scared, even just hungry or tired.
What’s not being said? That’s often the window into what your child needs most from you in that moment.
Don’t take it personally
We might find ourselves subject to all kinds of criticism during these episodes.
While it is possible that our children might mean what they say, by and large, they don’t: even if they feel it at the time.
Either way, we can get drawn into defending ourselves instead of emotionally connecting with our child.
Hold in mind that yours might be spending a lot of their life, e.g. at school, keeping a lid on particular feelings or supressing impulses, and they eventually have to come to the surface somehow.
And when they do, it’s often in the presence of the person they feel safest with; this is when they can finally let everything go.
Instead of feeling hurt if they’re ‘good as gold’ or ‘seem fine’ everywhere, or with everyone else, it can be an inverted compliment; “I can show you the worst of myself and know you’ll still accept me, love me, hold space for me, make me feel safe again” etc.
- Stay Self-Aware
Of course, our children need to learn more effective ways to understand and communicate their difficult feelings, and to manage them by themselves.
And they can. Just now right now.
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