Strategies to Cope with Dysregulation in Children

A dysregulated child can exhibit intense behaviors that cause immense stress and quickly put a family into crisis mode. It is not fun to deal with dysregulation, and it can be very confusing to know how to best handle each situation.

While working with families, I have often noticed that one parent tends to be very hard on the kids while the other will overcompensate or try to protect the child from hurt. This is often a result of feeling that the other parent is being too hard or too soft, pushing the parents further apart on their views of parenting. Kids recognize these gaps, and use it to their advantage. Approaching each issue as a team is the first step in winning the dysregulation battle. There are times when you will need to come down hard on your kids, and there are also times when it’s best to just lovingly guide them through a tough time. Depending on the circumstances, your response may look very different. Below are a few things to consider before you respond:

Time of day: There are very specific times of day that are very normal for kids to be irritable. Some kids will be edgy first thing in the morning; others right after school, during homework, or before bed. During these times, kids often just need to be loved and supported to pull through, but not punished because they are a little irritable. That irritability can be lovingly pointed out, but consequences should not necessarily be used.

Food: We often call this “hangry” because the anger is coming from hunger or low blood sugar. Try a healthy snack, or get dinner on the table to quickly turn around the irrational behavior. However, this does not mean that food needs to be offered anytime your child is irritable.

Severity: Intensity of behavior makes a difference. It is important not to make excuses of “tired or hungry” and allow disrespect or dysregulation to continue. It is never okay for children to hurt themselves, another person, or cause damage to property. Providing time to calm down will always be appropriate when you or your child has lost self-control.

Frequency: How often is the dysregulation taking place? Does your child come home every single day and spew words of disrespect toward you upon walking in the door? This needs to be addressed and worked on; but if this only happens from time to time, offer a little grace. We all have bad days and act in ways we wouldn’t normally. Maybe your child just needs a hug, or to talk about something that is on their mind.

Given these considerations, it’s important to decide if this behavior is regularly impacting the family and causing ongoing stress. If so, it’s time that enough is enough and changes and need to be made.

Set expectations: Children love to know what the expectations are, even if they don’t like them. Set expectations when your child is calm so you know s/he heard you and understands them. Once the expectations are set, hold to them. Consistency is important for breaking through these difficult times! A regular temptation I’ve seen with families is to make a reward chart; and if your child is “good enough,” then s/he can still have priorities that night or the next day. The problem with this approach is that you are telling your child that you can misbehave, but only a little; or you have to stay in control some of the time. Your child feels like s/he is being measured all the time and this can be very confusing. Children will do much better with clear and consistent expectations, and you won’t have to work as hard keeping up with the chart. A zero-tolerance policy with clear expectations is the best approach with ongoing, constant dysregulation.

Follow through: Kids will test the boundaries, so make sure you are ready to follow through with the expectations–every time. Children are very good at knowing how far they have to push their parents before one of them will break. Oftentimes, things get worse before they get better.

Stay calm: Remaining calm is important in order to keep things from escalating further. Getting upset, yelling or talking more will only fuel the fire and make your child more dysregulated. This will cause the upset to last longer, and create more stress for everybody.

Forgive: Forgive yourself and your child. There will be times that you handle a moment poorly–forgive yourself, there isn’t a perfect parent out there. It’s also important to forgive your child. Kids don’t misbehave to make your life miserable. Most of the time there is something else driving the dysregulation, and handling these moments with a little empathy can be exactly what your child needs.

Managing dysregulation can be tiring and create a ton of stress for a family, but it can get better! Most cases of dysregulation can be worked through rather quickly with the right supports and approaches in place. However, there may be many layers to dysregulation that need to be looked into further, such as diet, sleep, stress and anxiety. If you find that you are stuck in a mode of crisis, seek out support to get you through.

Post written by Michelle VanderHeide, MSW – Social Worker at Horizons Developmental Resource Center

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