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Signs your child may be dysregulated and what you can do to help.

Updated: Sep 22


Every single behaviour exhibited by your child has a meaning and purpose. Interestingly, the same behaviour exhibited by a different child can have a very different meaning. For example, a child might kick someone who stands too close to them. Another child might kick someone because they like kicking things. They have a physical need to kick.


What does this have to do with dysregulation? Dysregulation or more commonly known as emotional dysregulation, refers to a person who has a poor ability at managing their emotional reactions. Emotional dysregulation is often seen as a childhood issue, but if left untreated it continues into adulthood. You may have noticed adults in your life that have anger outbursts, get irritable and express frustrations at the slightest inconvenience.


For each of these individuals, emotional dysregulation often leads to a lifetime of struggles including problems with their interpersonal relationships (trouble connecting with their partners, conflict resolution), and they may experience trouble with their school performance and have trouble getting along with peers.


The good news is that if a child learns techniques and skills to manage their emotions early on, then dysregulation is often mitigated well before a child reaches adulthood.


Here are some signs your child might be dysregulated.


Emotional dysregulation often begins in childhood. Below is a list of the disorders most commonly associated with emotional dysregulation:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD)

  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)

Emotional dysregulation generally involves having emotions that feel very intense in comparison to the situation that caused them. An individual is not able to calm down, has a tendency to avoid difficult emotions, or focuses their attention on only the negative. People with emotional dysregulation also behave in an impulsive manner when their emotions (fear, sadness, or anger) are out of control. They may make rash decisions in the heat of the moment that they later regret.


Emotional dysregulation can also mean that a person has trouble recognizing the emotions that they are experiencing especially when they are upset. They might feel confused by their emotions, guilty about their emotions, or overwhelmed by their emotions to the point that they can't make decisions or manage their behavior.

A child with emotional dysregulation may experience the following:

  • A tendency to be defiant

  • Problems complying with requests from teachers or parents

  • Problems making and keeping friends

  • Reduced ability to focus on tasks

If you are a parent of a child who struggles with emotion dysregulation, you might be wondering what you can do to support your child. It is true that children learn emotion regulation skills from their parents. You have the ability to teach your child how to manage emotions rather than become overwhelmed by them. Read our blog here as we've rounded up some ways to teach your child how to self-regulate.


How does Play Therapy helps children that are dysregulated?


You may have heard of the concept of Neuroplasticity. In fact, you may have heard scientists refer to the brain as "plastic". Meaning that it changes in response to social and environmental experiences. This enables us to learn, form relationships with people, and develop new skills. When children experience safe, stable, and supportive environments it can lead to positive changes in the brain.


Your child's brain is made up of three distinct brains. The reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the thinking brain. The way to think about this is to ask what is each brain doing in your child’s head.

  • Firstly, the reptilian brain is always asking “Am I safe”?

  • Secondly, the limbic brain is always asking “am I loved”? and

  • Lastly, the thinking brain or neocortex is always asking “what can I learn from this?”

As play therapists, we create an environment so your child’s brain can answer those first two questions satisfactorily because if the first two questions are not answered properly then the thinking brain goes offline until the first two questions are fully satisfied.


And as those questions don’t get answered instantly. There is a lot of thought that goes into setting up the Therapy Playroom. Play is the way your child may put into words their experience. Children need to know they have an impact. That they matter and that they are heard and understood. This is how we start the healing process toward children becoming emotionally regulated. The one thing I have learned and continue to see in my practice, especially so for children that have had a traumatic experience or have special educational needs is that play is their talk and toys are their words.

If you would like to speak to a qualified Play therapist to learn how your child could benefit from play therapy, click here to get in touch today or want to know if Play Therapy could be right for your child take our quiz!

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