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Tips To Comfort A Child Struggling With Emotional Dysregulation

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Tips To Comfort A Child Struggling With Emotional Dysregulation

Recently, I conducted a workshop for parents discussing emotional dysregulation. The main focus was on how we, as parents, need to ensure our own calmness during these intense and, frankly, draining moments. Many parents have asked me, “How can I assist my child in managing their emotions when I struggle to do so myself?”

Most of us were not taught how to deal with discomfort or process intense emotions and strong feelings. Instead, we were often told to “stop crying” or “act like a grown-up.” Some of us were even punished for showing a “negative” emotion. This negative response that modern parents experienced has left them unsure of how to comfort an emotionally dysregulated child, leading to responses based on their own past experiences. Here are methods for parents to maintain composure and comfort an emotionally dysregulated child.

Understanding Emotional Dysregulation

From a developmental perspective, it is normal for children under the age of 5 to have frequent outbursts or moments of dysregulation. At this stage, children are still honing their skills in self-regulation. A tantrum or emotional breakdown often occurs due to an event or an unfavorable situation for the child. For instance, your child might throw a tantrum when you establish a boundary, ask them to part with a beloved toy, or say no to them. These actions trigger an emotional response because they are still learning how to control their emotions, which can lead to a tantrum, excessive crying, or screaming.

Key Needs of Emotionally Dysregulated Children

The way we react and what we do as parents are crucial. Here are three essentials that children require when experiencing emotional dysregulation:

1. A Steadfast Support

During times when our children are upset and unable to calm down, we need to maintain our own emotional stability. Although easier said than done, it requires time, practice, and a structured approach. In my coaching sessions with families, we focus on this aspect.

Naturally, our inclination is to halt the undesirable behavior due to our upbringing. However, we comprehend the significance of acknowledging emotions and equipping our kids with tools to manage and regulate themselves. Instead of discouraging certain emotions in our children, we aim to validate the broad spectrum of emotions.

The more composed you remain when your child is emotionally dysregulated, the quicker they can regain their composure. Think about yourself when you are distressed emotionally. You tend to seek solace in someone who is calm and composed, listens to you attentively, and remains grounded. Similarly, children need a rock to cling to during their emotional storms.

In many scenarios, parents engage in what I describe as “energy synchronization.” This involves mirroring the child’s emotional state. This may manifest as a parent shouting when the child is emotionally dysregulated or resorting to punishments to cease the tantrum. Aligning your energy with your child’s during moments of dysregulation seldom leads to a positive resolution. It might result in outbursts and severe consequences like prohibiting playdates for a week. In either case, your child misses the chance to develop self-regulation techniques.

Tips for Maintaining Composure during Your Child’s Dysregulation

Learning to anchor yourself and stay grounded serves as a guide for your child to do the same. I instruct parents on my four-step approach, PARR (Pause, Acknowledge, Respond, Reflect). Taking a few deep breaths before responding can alter the outcome positively. Being mindful of your breathing can help disrupt reactive patterns. Pausing when you sense emotional triggers can help you establish a connection with your child rather than escalating the situation.

2. Consistency and Predictability

Dealing with a child prone to frequent meltdowns or tantrums can be exasperating and overwhelming. It is tiring to navigate through the myriad responses. Consequently, your reactions may differ each time. Initially, you might try reasoning with your child, followed by ignoring the tantrum, and subsequently resorting to consequences.

Inconsistent responses lead to confusion in children, exacerbating dysregulation. When they feel out of control, they seek their parents to provide a safe haven. Calm and predictable reactions from you hasten your children’s emotional regulation. These consistent responses signal safety to their system, aiding them in developing self-regulation skills. Experimenting with random strategies only escalates dysregulation.

3. Reduced Stimulation

When children are dysregulated, their sensory systems are also in disarray. During tantrums, many parents I work with immediately resort to verbal communication. For instance, they may urge their child to express their emotions or remind them of neglected instructions while calming down. Engaging with children during a tantrum or dysregulated moment overwhelms their already burdened sensory system.

Oftentimes, the dysregulation intensifies, leading to a more severe tantrum. Despite trying to provide the right responses, the outcome may not align with the ideal approach to comforting an emotionally dysregulated child. Refrain from explanations or conversations during these moments. Stay composed, support them, validate their emotions, and uphold your boundaries. Allow your child to experience their emotions while you remain calm.

Ironically, it is crucial to focus on regulation while your child is regulated. Save discussions or queries for times when they are calm and attentive. In most cases, children do not require explanations for their missteps; they possess more understanding than we acknowledge.

Strategies to Minimize Tantrums and Foster Self-Regulation Skills

I introduce a method known as the boundary-empathy sandwich to aid parents in addressing or mitigating tantrums. Firstly, communicate the boundary: “No cookies before dinner.” Subsequently, display empathy towards your child’s likely emotions: “I understand it is tough when we can’t have what we desire. I empathize with that feeling.” Lastly, reiterate the boundary: “However, you cannot have a cookie before dinner.”

Assisting your child in developing self-regulation skills demands time and effort. This is why I collaborate with families for at least two months. We must treat ourselves with kindness and patience—an often disregarded yet crucial quality—to extend understanding to ourselves and assist our children in evolving into resilient and emotionally sound individuals.

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