Supporting Children Through Big Feelings

Jillian Enright

"Misbehaviour" is Really STRESS Behaviour

Supporting children through big feelings and challenging behaviours

Written by Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

This is a two-part blog series focusing on preventing and supporting children whose behaviour can become quite challenging when they are dysregulated.

Actually, it’s part three of a four-part blog series, and then part one of a two-part blog series… because one topic led me into another, and they’re all related… Also, because ADHD, guys.

Obviously.

The most recent related post was Punishments Don’t Teach Skills and I’ll list all the related posts at the end of this one.

"Misbehaviour" is Stress Behaviour

“The concept of misbehaviour is fundamentally tied to those of volition, choice, and awareness.”—(Siegel & Bryson, 2020)

This assumes that the child willingly chose to act the way he did. The thing is, stress behaviour is physiologically based.

“The behaviour is just the signal… If caregivers are focused only on modifying behaviour, then all they’re modifying is the signal. But they’re not solving any of the problems that are causing the signal” — (Greene, 2021)

When someone is emotionally dysregulated, they are not capable of deliberately choosing their actions or aware, in a rational way, of what they are doing (Shanker & Barker, 2016).

Dysregulation refers to experiences like having BIG feelings and emotions, feeling out of control, feeling highly emotional, and experiencing an intense emotional response.

“A child who seems to be misbehaving is, in the process, adapting and surviving.” —(Delahooke, 2019)

Many neurodivergent people experience their emotions very intensely and can become dysregulated more easily than neurotypical people.

Parents and adults, please remember: As difficult and challenging (and exhausting) it can be for us to support and co-regulate with a child who experiences extreme dysregulation, it is even more distressing for the child, who doesn’t have the cognitive development to understand and regulate these experiences. It can be scary to lose control of oneself.

Be Proactive

These strategies can help all children, not just neurodiverse children:

  • Define expectations before heading to an activity
  • Give children a “heads up” before transitions whenever possible
  • “We need to leave for school in 10 minutes, so please make sure you have everything ready that you need.”
  • “Five minutes ’til dinner, guys!”

Dysregulation Happens (to everyone)

Dysregulation can happen for many reasons:

  • Sensory overload: too hot, too cold, too loud, too bright, too everything
  • Anxiety / Fear
  • Frustration, sadness, hurt feelings
  • Not feeling well

When a Child is Upset / Dysregulated

Please do NOT:

  • Ignore or reject the child.
  • “Planned ignoring” is still ignoring.
  • This communicates to the child that they will be left alone to deal with their big feelings, even when they do not yet have the skills to manage them.
“When we are ignored as human beings, it decreases our emotional links to other people, who should be our life rafts when we are suffering.”—(Delahooke, 2019)
  • “Planned” ignoring is still ignoring.
  • Forcing a child to isolate from the family as a form of punishment is rejection.
  • Sending a child to their room or to a “time out” can be (but is not always) a form of rejection*.
  • It may send the message that they are not wanted when they are experiencing big feelings, and that they will not be supported when they have these big feelings.

*This is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t teach our children to take space when they need it.

When they need it.

Co-Regulation

The difference is that we’re teaching our child a skill and giving them tools for self-regulation, but in the mean time, we need to co-regulate with them.

Co-regulation is when we help our children to regulate their emotions by soothing, comforting, and supporting them. Emotional co-regulation is attuning to and supporting another person through our presence (Delahooke, 2019).

Co-regulation is a relational dyadic exchange that exudes feelings of safety and belonging. Co-regulation requires the adult to maintain a calm brain during the conflict (Desautels, 2020).

Co-regulating means supporting children as they regain emotional composure, as well as teaching them skills that will help them stay balanced and regulated more easily in the future (Siegel & Bryson, 2019).

We also teach emotional regulation skills by practicing and role-modelling them for our children.

“Emotional co-regulation comes first, and this is how emotional self-regulation is developed.” —(Delahooke, 2019)

Supporting a child to take space and time to regulate, empathizing with their feelings, and staying with them if they want or need you to will help preserve the relationship, their dignity, and their self esteem.

It’s important to emphasize the message, “I didn’t like that behaviour, but I still love you.”

Please also do not dismiss their feelings or invalidate their experience:

  • “It’s not a big deal”
  • “Don’t worry about it!”
  • “That’s not what happened”
  • Tell them to “calm down”

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0VjNnm_0ctqdmL300
Hobbes created by Bill WattersonImage created by author

Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.

Take care to not become dysregulated yourself (easier said than done, trust me, I know)

“Walk beside them through their pain, helping them see they are strong enough to handle a difficult situation and come out okay. “—(Siegel & Bryson, 2020)

A dysregulated adult cannot co-regulate with, or help regulate (i.e. calm), a dysregulated child.

“It’s not easy to help a child feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure when we ourselves feel out of control emotionally.”—(Siegel & Bryson, 2020).

Stay calm: Keep your body language and voice calm as much as possible. I f you are feeling frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed, ask for support from your co-parent, family member, or a friend if you can.

Role-model taking space yourself, or utilizing tools for self-regulation. It’s okay to say “ I’m feeling frustrated right now, I’m going to do [calming strategy], and I will come back to this conversation when I am feeling calm and ready.”

Start low and slow. If a child is in distress, it’s a good idea to speak very softly, quietly, gently, and to use as few words as possible (Delahooke, 2019).

When we contain or hold space, we make it safe for our children to express strong or difficult emotions or thoughts, without reacting ourselves (Siegel & Bryson, 2020).

Please do not make threats

“If you don’t _______, then _______!”

This only serves to escalate things and further pushes the child into a fight or flight mode

Points to Remember:

  • Dysregulation can be caused by many factors that are largely outside of the child’s control
  • Listen, empathize, validate, and co-regulate
  • Dysregulation is often caused by factors that are outside of the child’s control

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=2u9Qq0_0ctqdmL300
Hand Model developed by Dr. Daniel SiegelImage created by author

“Misbehaviour” = STRESS Behaviour

When a child is out of control, or is overwhelmed by their emotions, environment, and/or senses, we call the resulting behaviours bottom-up behaviours. These are reflexible, automatic responses that do not involve conscious thought (Delahooke, 2019).

If a child is highly dysregulated (what we might call experiencing a “meltdown” or “flipping their lid”), they are exhibiting bottom-up behaviours.

When someone’s nervous system is in fight or flight mode, they are unable to access and utilize their rational brain. In this state, it is nearly impossible to connect in a caring way with another person (Siegel & Bryson, 2011).

That is NOT the time to:

Discuss their behaviour

  • This will further escalate them
  • Their brain is offline and not currently capable of processing that information

Problem solve

  • People cannot problem-solve when the logical and rational part of their brain (PFC) is offline
  • This will likely increase frustration

Use logic to try to talk them out of their feelings.

  • “…but you love swimming!”
  • “Cmon, you know he didn’t mean that”
  • “You’re over-reacting”
  • “You’re being silly/dramatic”
  • This is invalidating and dismissive and the child will not feel heard

Feelings are not rational, so don’t expect them to be. A child’s experience is valid and real, even if they seem to us to be over-reacting. Their perception of events may be inaccurate, but their feelings are 100% real.

The facts and logic can be dealt with once everyone is calm and safe, worry about that later. When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have first responded to their emotional needs (Siegel & Bryson, 2011).

Remember: Feelings are not entirely rational, but they are 100% real.

Feelings are important and should definitely be recognized as such, but we also should recognize that they are flowing and changing throughout our lives, and throughout our day (Siegel & Bryson, 2020).

Stress = Fight or Flight Response

When people experience high levels of stress, their brains and bodies go into the fight or flight response.

The subconscious perception of safety and threat underlies these behaviours, which are adaptive and emerge from the instinctive drive toward self-protection (Delahooke, 2019).

The goal during this time is to help the child feel safe so that they can regulate (aka “calm down”) and get their PFCback online.

As Dr. Delahooke says, “safety is in the eye of the beholder.” What’s important is the child’s own perception and feeling of safety — not what the adults think should constitute relational or environmental safety (Delahooke, 2019).

Keep Calm and Regulate On

  • Take a slow, deep breath before responding
  • Speak calmly and softy, using as few words as possible
  • When the brain is in flight or flight, they won’t hear most of what you are saying.
  • The brain will focus in on certain words that either confirm or deny their sense of safety.
  • Get down to the child’s level (if safe to do so — keep a safe distance if needed)
  • Convey the message “I’m going to help keep you safe”
  • Model the calm you want to see in the child

An essential part of tolerable stress is whether it has a beneficial or adverse effect depends largely on whether the person receives the support to handle it (Siegel & Bryson, 2020).

Points to Remember:

  • Feelings are not rational.
  • A child’s experience is valid even if they seem to us to be over-reacting.
  • Their feelings are 100% real.
  • The facts and logic can be dealt with once everyone is calm.

When the Dust Finally Settles…

  • Try your best not to take the child’s behaviour personally
  • Even if they were trying to hit you or calling you names
    • Remember, even adults say and do things while in emotional states that they didn’t mean or later regret
  • You can absolutely express that their behaviour hurt your feelings or made you feel unsafe
  • It’s important to remember that the child’s brain is completely offline during a meltdown and they are not in full control of their behaviour

Mona Delahooke and Looking Beyond Behaviours

When considering prevention:

Think in terms of problem-solving and reconciliation, rather than punishment.

Part two (or is it part four?) of our blog series on preventing and supporting children whose behaviour can become quite challenging when they are dysregulated is available here.

(c) Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Related Stories

"Punishment" Does. Not. Work.

Punishments Don't Teach Skills

Punishing Behaviour Makes It Worse

Pick Your Battles

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References

Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioral challenges. PESI Publishing.

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Dixon, M. L., Thiruchselvam, R., Todd, R., & Christoff, K. (2017). Emotion and the prefrontal cortex: An integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 143(10), 1033–1081. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000096

Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Shanker, S., & Barker, T. (2016). Self-reg: how to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life. Penguin Press.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The power of showing up: How parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired. Ballantine Books.

Siegel, D. J., & Payne Bryson, T. (2019). The Yes Brain: How to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child. Bantam.

Siegel, Daniel, J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The Whole Brain Child. Random House.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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