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  • Writer's pictureVanessa

Parenting Easily Dysregulated Kids: Top 10 Tips

PARENTING THE EXTREMES


Easily dysregulated kids. You know if you have one, trust me! These kids are beautifully sensitive, perceptive, big feeling, and also frequently overwhelmed by their emotional experiences. One of these amazing little souls once described the experience of being dysregulated, as feeling like a tornado and a hurricane both raging inside at the same time. Not only is that an overwhelmingly distressing experience for the child… it is also immensely hard for parents.


In parenting, the most effective way of working with children is to strike a balance between structure and freedom. ESPECIALLY with kids who are easily dysregulated.


But, often with these, what I call, “intense kids”, the parenting pendulum can swing from being authoritarian to permissive, with little in between.


THE PARENTING PENDULUM


Authoritarian Parenting


The authoritarian part of the pendulum is where the parent feels the child must have strict rules and punishments, so as not to condone the bad behaviors that we often see with intense kiddos. Parents fear what will happen if their child continues with aggressive, unsafe behaviors, as they get older. They feel a desperation to get these reactions under control before the child becomes so big that parents can’t manage them. This all comes from a place of protectiveness and fear – wanting their child to be ok. Feeling they must teach control so that their child won’t continue to be out of control.


Permissive Parenting


The permissive part of the pendulum is where the parent accommodates in order to avoid the storm that is often unleashed by the child when they enter the dreaded zone of dysregulation. The permissive parent is one who has been on the receiving end of many a battle. They have witnessed their child in severe distress and agony. Perhaps there has even been damage to the home, other children have been impacted, or even hurt… There is a trauma response here that kicks in – a warning from within the parent that this dysregulation must be avoided at all costs. The accommodation that ensues comes from a place of protection and fear as well. It is an automatic reaction that kicks in to try and keep things safe and manageable.


The Swing


What we see often in working with parents of intense kids, is that they swing from one end of this parenting pendulum to the other. This results in a feeling of instability and chaos for the child, which only leads to more episodes of dysregulation. It’s important to understand that there are many good reasons for this swing, all based in good parenting motives. But it’s detrimental to the child nonetheless.


Authoritative Parenting


The middle ground is the answer for how to create an environment of safety and stability – so that families, and subsequently children, can learn to ride the waves of emotions, instead of being constantly overwhelmed by them. This balance of structure and freedom is consistent with what is called authoritative parenting.


In this style of parenting, the goal is to give the child the boundaries and structure they need for safety (including limit setting!), along with the freedom to allow their individuality to shine. We don’t want to change who they are. We want them to be the best version of themselves they can be. We don’t want to put out their fire. We want them to learn to control the flames. This is called self-regulation.


THE GOAL: SELF-REGULATION


When kids learn the skill of self-regulation, they are strengthening their brain and will feel strong, confident, and capable as a result. The parenting tips below promote self-regulation and also ensure that you are building this regulatory skill from a foundation of love, acceptance, and respect. When you do this, it prevents kids from feeling like the identified problem in the family. It protects them from feeling bad about themselves and from the deeper pain of thinking you don’t like them, or worse.


PARENTING TIPS FOR SUCCESS


Here are my top 10 tips for promoting an environment of structure and freedom – that

supports regulated kids (and parents!):


  1. The single most important thing you can do – is manage your own emotions. Nothing sparks a dysregulated fire more than an upset parent. Kids need a neutral environment, so that they can focus on their own feelings and emotions. Escalating emotions of the parent (anger, annoyance, desperation…) all create a feeling of unsafety. This is because the child now feels that the scary and large emotions they are feeling are SO big that they are controlling you! Modeling regulation is key. You as a parent need to be the thermostat, not the thermometer!

  2. Establish consistent anchors. Having anchors are critical for all kids, especially our intense kids. Anchors are external touch points in the environment that kids can count on. An anchor can be as simple as the same songs each morning while getting ready, always having a snack in the car ready at pick up time / when they get home, or a weekly movie night. The sky is the limit here. What’s important is that these are consistent things that happen at known intervals. Because anchors remain unchanged – kids can count on them to be true. This creates safety for the brain. Which promotes regulation.

  3. Be Clear! Mean what you say and say what you mean. This sounds simple but it is HARD. Kids are masters at remembering what you say, and then holding you to it. With intense kids, if you say something and then later rescind or change it – this is definitely going to be a trigger for dysregulation. So how this looks in real life… If you set a limit, stick to it. If you know the answer is no, say no (not maybe, or ask me later)! Not only does this create a sense of safety and promote regulation, but it builds trust between you and your child!

  4. Ignore misbehavior. Intense kids often speak and act in ways that are tough to take. It can be tempting to react and engage in these moments, but that engagement only reinforces the misbehavior. The best thing to do is ignore these challenging behaviors, stay calm and regulated yourself, and redirect to regulating activities. Look at challenging behaviors as a sign that your child is moving towards dysregulation – and focus on intervening in ways that will move them back towards regulation. See numbers 5 and 6!

  5. Promote safety – in the body. When you notice challenging behaviors starting, this is a sign that your child is starting to move towards dysregulation. Sometimes this can be because their physical system is off – from being hungry, understimulated (not enough physical activity; too much energy) or overstimulated (fatigue; exhaustion). The best thing to do in order to rule out these underlying factors, is start with the body! Fun fact, the body is also the fastest road to regulation. What to try: Get them a crunchy snack, something with protein, ice water (bonus – that they can drink through a straw) and get them moving if understimulated and resting if overstimulated. A fun game to move them back towards regulation is to have them spin (movement). Direct them to spin fast, and then medium, and then slow. This game promotes modulation – which is the ability to move your energy from high to low and vice versa. Another fun game is to have them build a cave or fort. This activity promotes rest and provides them with space to reset.

  6. Promote safety – in the brain (the neuroception of safety). When kids are moving towards a dysregulated state, think of it as them moving from the upstairs brain (the thinking brain or command center) to the downstairs brain (where feelings and reactivity reside). When we see challenging behaviors, it’s a sign that kids are walking down those stairs to the basement of reactivity and dysregulation – we want to get them back upstairs as quickly as possible! Some ways we can engage the upstairs brain and get them moving back up the brain, are as follows: Get them curious (For example: act surprised, then say – remember when we were hiking and saw that baby turtle! I was trying to remember what colors it had on it. Do you remember? Or – whoa, what is that thing outside? I want to go explore that!), be playful with them (oooh… let’s play a game!), and then focus their attention (I spy game, hide and seek).

  7. Reflective Responding – or as Dr. Dan Siegel calls it, “Name it to Tame it”. If your child does continue to walk down the stairs to the basement of dysregulation, it’s time to employ reflective responding. You name the emotions you see them experiencing. This can sound like: You are really angry at me right now. You find this all so unfair. The options are limitless – and depend on what your child is showing you. Key tips for reflective responding: don’t argue with them or correct them, don’t get emotional (stay regulated and in control of yourself!), and don’t make it too long. Responses should start with “You” statements that highlight how they are feeling, should be 10 words or less, and should have the period placed before the “but” (meaning avoid things like “you are so angry, but if you would have picked up your things then you could have watched a show). The key here is that when kids are dysregulated, we want them to feel we are present, loving them and accepting them in the midst of their struggle… but we also want them to find their way out (self-regulation). And they will find their way, when we can hold that space for them with love, and believe in their ability to do so.

  8. Reward the Recovery. When kids are dysregulated, the goal is to stay calm and ride it out. Make sure they are safe. Make sure they feel understood and like you care (the reflective responses should convey this!). Make sure you are there and stay present with them – even if it’s sitting in the hall outside their room while they work through their feelings… Once they calm down, are in control again, and can re-engage with you / the family – THEN take this chance to reward the recovery! Highlight that they were able to get themselves calm and explore with them how they did that (You can say: You were so upset, and you figured out how to get back in control. How exactly did you do that? The first 100 times you say that they will probably say “I don’t know”, but it gets them connecting the dots, even if they can’t verbalize those connections YET!). At this point you can offer something rewarding since they were able to get themselves back in control (back upstairs in their brain). This process of ignoring the misbehavior that comes with dysregulation and rewarding the recovery – quite literally rewires their brain to regulate itself.

  9. Promote autonomy and self-responsibility by offering choices. Instead of just saying no or making a demand (“Go put your stuff away now”) – offer choices! This engages that upstairs brain we want them to stay in and gives them a sense of power and control (which reduces the need to hunker down and dig in their heels, in an attempt to keep and protect their power). This can look like: You can choose to clean up your toys and then you can choose to watch one show, or you can choose not to clean up your toys and you can choose to not have tv today. Just be prepared to truly let them choose – meaning the toys may not be cleaned up for the day (or you clean them up) but they don’t get tv. Choices can also be about everyday things like what to eat or what to wear – this gives them a sense of freedom and value.

  10. Last but certainly not least… Spend time enjoying each other! Aim for 30 minutes per week of uninterrupted one on one time with your child. Let them lead you in what they want to do and let them be in charge. This will fill their cup for connection, power / control, and attention. In turn you will see a reduction in them trying to get these needs met in undesirable ways. One on one time also gives you a chance to really see your child. They can show you what they like, who they are, and what they need. Lastly, and most importantly, it shows them you value and enjoy being with them. It’s kids that feel this from their parents, who can’t wait to call and visit them when they are adults. When you enjoy and value your kids when they are little (and hard!), they will enjoy and value time with you, when they are all grown up.


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