Does this sound like you?
I don’t want to just give in to my child when they’re having a tantrum, because then they’ll learn that tantrums are how they get my attention.
I GET IT.
We are all conditioned by behaviorism to see big emotions whether we have young children or older children as a big problem. Hence why you probably feel the urge to ignore your kid while they flip out in the middle of the Target check-out line.
The truth is…there is a logical reason why your child gets emotionally dysregulated, and I can offer you some effective tools for teaching emotional self-regulation skills without reinforcing ‘bad’ behavior.
What is Emotional Dysregulation?
When your nervous system senses a threat or danger, it reacts with emotional dysregulation. It’s an inescapable part of the human condition.
This is your safety meter. It’s an important hard-wired mechanism that is built-in to ensure your survival.
Think about it: when a baby cries, they’re emotionally dysregulated. Those cries become the parents' signals to go check in and see what the baby needs.
In other words, emotional dysregulation serves an evolutionary purpose.
We cannot be afraid of it.
And there’s no use in squashing it. Because when you do, it just rears its uncomfortable head when you least expect it.
Some folks may experience chronic emotional dysregulation, which in psychology land we might label as a mood or anxiety disorder. If you sense your child may be struggling with anxiety or depression, please reach out to a licensed mental health professional for an evaluation.
Here are the basics of what you need to understand about emotional dysregulation & emotional responses:
BIG BEHAVIORS = BIG FEELINGS = BIG NEEDS.
When we only react to the behavior: STOP SCREAMING! GO TO YOUR ROOM!
We might miss what those screams are communicating: I’m feeling unheard and lonely. Is anyone listening?
And if we can’t connect to the feelings in that emotional state, we’re probably going to disconnect from what our child really needs from us in these big feeling moments: Connection and support.
Why do children struggle to regulate their emotions?
Children are emotionally immature due to the very nature of how the brain develops and how their brain development correlates with their sensory system. Yet we often parent with unrealistic expectations:
- I’ve already taught them.
- She knows better.
- He needs to grow up.
- Why do kids these days need so much coddling?! Back in my day…
Case in point: you’re waiting at the red light. The green arrow goes, but the person in front of you stalls. You wait patiently for a few seconds, until you realize how incredibly inconvenient this is…because you’re running late and doesn’t everybody else understand that YOU HAVE SOMEWHERE TO BE.
So you start honking on your horn and screaming at your windshield.
This adult temper tantrum (aka losing your emotional control) is socially acceptable…even though it’s not ideal. We give ourselves and each other compassion when we act out our big feelings. When an adult has big feelings, it’s acceptable because our big feelings are logical.
…or so we tell ourselves…
BUT we do not give this same grace to children.
When your child is flipping out because they asked for Lucky Charms and you poured them Lucky Charms…and you’re scratching your head wondering…what the heck just happened here…
Deep inside your child’s brain, they’re having what Dr. Mona Delahook describes as a prediction error.
In other words, perhaps they thought they said Fruit Loops (because they don’t get the difference between the two bowls of cereal just yet).
And even though you did exactly what they asked, in their minds, they were predicting something else..
..and so the emotional dysregulation takes over.
Here’s another example:
Your kid expects to go to the park after school. When you pick them up, you remind them of the doctor’s appointment. Cue the meltdown because they predicted the wrong thing and don’t have the self-regulation skills to understand their emotions. They don’t have the tools to calm down independently. And now you’re yelling at them to calm down, which only further exacerbates the issue.
What role does a parent play when dealing with a dysregulated child?
Parents: we are VITAL in helping our children learn how to regulate their emotions. The first step is to unlearn this idea that giving attention to big feelings only encourages children to act out more. It’s actually the opposite: the more we squash, hinder, or otherwise try to exterminate big feelings…
…the bigger they grow.
Children express big feelings through even BIGGER behaviors (yes, this includes aggressive behavior too)…which is why so many families feel trapped inside the cycle of punishing their children for their 'negative emotions'. .
Children are looking for our support and guidance in these big, overwhelming experiences.
You need to see your child’s dysregulation from their perspective:
This is scary. I don’t know how to get out of this. Who is there to help me?
When a child is dysregulated because they can’t find their toy, we are NOT helpful if we first chastise them: Well you need to learn to take better care of your things. Now stop your whining, and go find something else to play with.
Doing so will not teach your child self-regulation. It will only teach your child that when they have a problem, you’re not available to support them.
Your child will learn personal responsibility and self-regulation if you respond with compassion, support, and guidance: You lost your favorite toy? What a bummer! I think I remember you playing with it in the kitchen last. Should we go check there?
When you respond predictably and reliably in this way, your child learns to trust your leadership and feel comforted by your presence when things are hard.
Contrary to what you may have been conditioned to believe, you actually want your children to come to you when they have a problem and seek your guidance. Otherwise, they will rely on themselves and their peers, all of whom lack mature social and emotional skills.
The best way parents can support their emotionally dysregulated child
What is the BIGGEST part we play in our child’s emotional regulation? WHAT WE MODEL.
Children under the age of 10 have absorbent minds. They watch how we regulate our own emotions, and then practice what we model.
So, if we have poor emotional regulation skills and frequent emotional outbursts...what do you suppose they're learning from us?
Children do not follow our verbal commands when it comes to emotional regulation.
It is monkey see, monkey do!
They follow our non-verbal cues.
Here’s how this plays out in real life. Let’s go back to the Lucky Charms situation:
You take a deep breath. You honor what you’re feeling: I’m so confused. You asked for Lucky Charms, I gave you Lucky Charms, and now you’re upset. This is hard, huh?
Maybe you say that just to yourself, or maybe you say it out loud… either way, your child is absorbing the energetic pulse.
They’re recognizing that you’re not reacting to their big feelings. You’re staying in a neutral place of compassion and understanding, while actively breathing in your belly and grounding in your body.
Even little kids are capable of observing us in the act of regulating our bodies…
…and with repetition and consistency…they will start to repeat what they see.
Does this mean that you’ve damaged your kid because you’ve yelled at them or reacted emotionally otherwise?
NO! It means YOU’RE NORMAL.
Like I said before, having big feelings is an inescapable part of the human condition, and you are definitely going to react in ways you wish you wouldn’t at times.
Your goal is not to be PERFECTLY REGULATED ALL THE TIME.
That would be SOO BORING.
…And also.. not real life.
Kids need imperfect parents so they can learn how to live in an imperfect world.
So just like I always encourage parents to lead with grace, compassion, and curiosity when it comes to helping their kids..
…this is advice you can do for yourself… especially when you’ve had an adult temper tantrum and you could really just use a hug (...or a break).
Keep reading for 11 reliable tips from a licensed psychotherapist to soothe your dysregulated child without reinforcing bad behavior.
11 Tips to Soothe Your Dysregulated Child (Without Reinforcing ‘Bad’ Behavior)
There is so much power in the pause. For most dysregulated behavior, the longer you pause, the shorter the meltdown. I know that emotional dysregulation often feels like an IMMEDIATE crisis that we absolutely MUST end instantly…
But it’s not.
Dysregulated behavior IS a call to action. And sometimes, that action is for you to simply slow down, take a deep breath, and focus on getting your own emotions in order. When you do this, you will be much more effective in helping to soothe your child’s nervous system.
2) Rock and hum.
Have you noticed when your child is dysregulated, their body jerks and flails? This is an instinctual response the body does to signal how out of control it feels.
Biologically, when an animal sees its young is flailing about, it cues the mature parent to tend to its offspring and bring it back to safety.
This is why rocking with your child can be a helpful way to soothe their sensory dysregulation and bring their brain back online. When we rock with our kids during a meltdown, we activate a special nerve in the ear - the vestibular nerve - which, when stimulated, can promote regulation pretty quickly.
If you fall asleep fairly easily on an airplane, it’s usually because the rumbling from the engine and the gentle rocking within the plane itself stimulate this nerve and produce an immediate relaxation response.
Holding and rocking with your kid in a big feeling moment can produce a similar effect. If your child resists, try holding them a little bit differently. Or skip the rocking altogether, and just hum.
When we hum a simple note or tune, it stimulates the vagus nerve - for both of you! This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress. This means that the simple act of humming - whether it’s an OHM or TWINKLE TWINKLE - can help your child move out of fight, flight, or freeze into relaxation and regulation.
3) Repeat their feelings and desires.
Often the thing that moves a child out of a dysregulated state of stress is by giving them the opportunity to feel heard and understood by you.
The need for connection is a legitimate need, and you will not reinforce bad behavior by giving your child attention if this is the dominating need beneath the behavior.
When you repeat their feelings and desires, you help give your child the experience of feeling felt by you.
If your child is screaming ‘NO I DON’T WANT TO!’ and is clearly having a hard time when you say it’s time to clean up:
→ try repeating it back to them at 50% of their intensity: You don’t want to! You want to keep playing. You really wish playtime wasn’t over!
Tip: if this makes your child’s meltdown WORSE, then stop speaking. Here’s what’s happening:
Your child’s brain is unable to process what you’re saying because it’s already flooded by the fight, flight, freeze response.
When your child comes down from this state, and you see their eyes are starting to click back online, try again and see if it helps.
4) Change the environment.
Sometimes all a child needs is a change in environment to help soothe their nervous system. You could try going outside…a little fresh air definitely helps the body to regulate again.
I like to do nature walks with children. This can be a great tool for prevention. As we walk, we observe carefully everything we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Doing so teaches your children to tune into their 5 senses, which helps them in all big feeling moments.
If you can’t get outdoors, try offering a bath or some water play. Water is very soothing for the body, and can encourage your child to regulate in even the most dysregulated moments.
5) Talk low, slow, and very little.
How we approach our kids in dysregulated moments matters. When we talk fast, stand over them, and say a bunch of stuff anxiously, it activates the threat detectors in the child’s brain. They cannot process so much information at once, especially when they’re emotionally stressed out. We don't need to give them. harder time for the sake of control.
So your general rule of thumb is to get down at or below your child’s eye level. Say one thing at a time, and say it slowly, deliberately, and intentionally.
The best approach is to try to resist giving commands in these moments. You could simply say, “I hear you. This is frustrating.” That’s enough. It won’t overwhelm their brains, and will increase the likelihood that they can come back online quicker.
6) Move your bodies.
Especially if your child is getting physical in a meltdown, movement can be one of the best things available to them.
You could try pushing on the walls to make the room “bigger”: this activates the proprioception sense in the body and gives your child’s body an extra boost.
This aligns with Maria Montessori’s teachings of giving children ‘heavy work’. Heavy work is both a great preventative tool and an effective intervention tool if it resonates with your child.
Some kids need to run to get the feelings to flow. How can you adjust the environment to allow this to happen? Oftentimes our instinct is to get our kids to STOP moving when they are dysregulated…even though sometimes it’s movement that is necessary!
Your child may be interested in being wrapped in a blanket like a burrito. A similar idea: blanket therapy. This is where you place a maximum 12-pound weighted blanket across your child’s body for 5 minutes at a time.
Blanket therapy should be introduced when your child is calm; if you wait until your child is in a full-blown meltdown to introduce the concept (or any new concept, really!), you will likely get push-back and minimal cooperation.
Not because your child is obstinate or defiant… but because processing something new is that much harder when the nervous system is already too stressed out!
Experiment with these body movement ideas the next time you notice your child is seeking physical input when they're dysregulated and see if any of these tips work for you.
For some children, touch is a vital way to help them soothe. Experiment with different types of touch. Your child will tell you what works for them at that moment.
For example, sometimes they want to be held. Sometimes they may enjoy soft strokes on their backs. Sometimes they may want you to squeeze down their arms, legs, and feet.
And sometimes, your child may not want to be touched at all. It’s okay if they need some bubble space. Let them know that: “I see you need bubble space. I’m right here when you’re ready.”
8) Create a calming corner
A calming corner could be an intentional space you designate for co-regulation with your children. It could also be a spontaneous space if you don't have a dedicated space or you’re too far away in the moment.
Regardless of the physical corner itself, the intention of this space is clear: it’s where your child can borrow your calm brain to bring their dysregulated brain back online.
Especially if your child is behaving in ways that are not safe (hitting, kicking, throwing), ensuring that they are in a safe space is important. Always set boundaries around unsafe behaviors: “I can’t let you hit.” While also tending to the feelings: “I know you’re frustrated. You’re not alone.”
Things to have in your calming corner: bubbles, playdough, kinetic sand, bean bag, paper, crayons, and anything that encourages your child to reset and regulate their bodies (this is also great in general for children with sensory issues).
9) Assess if they’re hungry or tired.
Just like you, kids are more likely to act out when they are hungry or tired. You will not be reinforcing bad behaviors if you give your kid a snack.
If they’re not hungry, the snack won’t suffice. They will continue to act out.
If they’re hungry, a snack or a meal should take the edge off. In which case, once they’re calm, you can give them the appropriate skills they need. Teach your child to say, “I’m hungry, I need a snack!” instead of acting out.
Look for all the times they practice this skill in their daily lives. And when they do, notice it out loud: “Thanks so much for telling me you’re hungry! I love it when you use your words to let me know what’s happening inside your body!”
If your kid is tired, you may have to end what you’re doing and prioritize sleep. Don’t push your child to the brink of exhaustion and expect them to keep it together. They won’t. Kids rely on parents to hold boundaries around sleep.
Remember that eating and sleeping are the ‘base’ of the nervous system. When these are out of balance, the child will most likely be out of sorts. When you see this..take the day slower and easier.
10) Wait it out.
The only way out is through. You can try every single one of these tips, and I guarantee you that there will be times where NONE of it works.
And all you can do is wait patiently. Breathe. Ensure everyone is safe. And let the storm pass.
When you’re stuck in these dysregulated moments, it’s important for you to remember that these difficult, big feelings moments come to pass. They don’t come to stay.
Your job is to minimize distractions. Maybe pop in some earplugs if you’re feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed, and try to stay present.
I’ll often sit on the floor criss-cross applesauce. I’ll leave my hands on my lap. And I focus on my breath. The child in question will notice me and slowly make their way to my lap. Once they’re there, I offer a hug. I’ll hum, rock, and give a back rub. The tears will flow. And I’ll let them know: “I know this is hard. I’m here for you.”
11) Prevent with PLAY
Throughout this post, I peppered in the importance of prevention. PLAY is a quick acronym to help you remember 4 critical action items to prevent (or.. in the very least reduce) meltdowns.
Prioritize 9: There are 9 precious minutes every day with your children. The first 3 minutes in the morning, 3 minutes after school, and 3 minutes right before bedtime. Prioritize these 9 minutes by being undistracted and fully present with your child. Focus on connection (not correction), comforting physical touch, and words of affirmation.
Let your child lead in play: Play is your child’s zone. It’s where they show you everything they’re feeling and exactly what they’re thinking. Try not to direct their play by asking academic questions like ‘what color is that’ or by telling them, “No, that doesn’t belong there silly, it goes here.” Instead, follow their flow and narrate what you see them doing with their hands.
Accept your child for who they are, not who you expect them to be: Your child is more likely to meltdown and become emotionally dysregulated when they feel like they have something to prove to you. When kids feel like their parents are constantly trying to fix them or overly concerned about them, the child questions if there’s something wrong with them. This can increase depression and anxiety in children, both of which can exacerbate dysregulation and difficulties in the home.
Your own regulation: When you focus on taking some deep breaths, prioritizing your own needs, and slowing down, you will (almost instantly) feel more effective in your parenting and in controlling your own emotional reactions. If you’re constantly on edge, always yelling, and just feel triggered all. the. time… the best thing you can do for your child’s nervous system is to learn how to regulate your own. I have a great workshop for that.
Final Thoughts on Supporting Your Dysregulated Child
I’ve been practicing in infant and early childhood mental health since 2011, and I can confidently say that these are easily my most tried-and-true techniques for regulating a child.
Of course, you will need to adapt to suit your personal style and your child’s unique needs. Don’t be afraid to put your spin on it!
Here’s the most important takeaway: you don’t need to be perfect. You need to be reliable and predictable in your response. Kids depend on us to show up for these big feeling moments. This gives them the safety they need to move through their emotions fearlessly.
There’s a lot more I can teach you on this subject. My 2-hour workshop Consciously Managing Meltdowns teaches you why big feelings happen and how you may be contributing to them.
You’ll learn the underlying 7 needs of your child’s behaviors, and how to support your child’s regulation through the ABCs of Meltdown Management framework.
Enroll and watch instantly; plus gain access to the digital workbook that outlines the concepts and gives you space to reflect and grow.