My entire being cringed recently as I sat beside my ecstatic son watching family videos from five years ago- a few short months after our two sons came home through foster care adoption.
As I sat beside my son, his delight barely registered to me, because I was traumatized by the video. All I could hear in the old recording from two of my children’s voices and body language was their cry of, “I’m a dysregulated mess! I can’t handle this video camera thing! Please help me feel safe. I don’t want to be like this, but I can’t stop. I need your help!”
My son unknowingly tortured me by replaying the videos several times. Eventually, I was able to hear beyond my children to my own voice behind the camera. I was surprised that, despite the fact that I in way over my head at the time, I was playing my part exactly as the books instruct: calmly responding to each question, asking my children to redo less-than-desirable behaviors, and patiently teaching them respectful phrases that were missing from their vocabulary.
But none of my textbook interaction was making any difference. In fact, my interventions seemed to make everything worse.
The books I read to prepare for adoption had instructed me that my child must feel safe before I should attempt behavioral interventions. However, I don’t remember instruction on how to help my specific child feel safe given his traumatic past. How would I be able to tell if my interventions were helping? How could I tell he wasn’t feeling safe in the first place?!
The reason I couldn’t help my children feel safe was that I didn’t know they were feeling unsafe. I had no idea that the absence of feeling safe led to dysregulation. I didn’t even know what regulation was!
All I knew was that time with my sons in the early days was uncomfortable. Much of the time, I couldn’t stand to be in conversation with them or even be in the same room as them, and because of that, I felt like a horrible failure as their mom. I felt like giving up.
It took me three years to begin to realize that almost any time I can barely tolerate my children, it’s because they’re dysregulated (or I’m dysregulated), and there are always ways to help them regulate.
When I give my children what they need to regulate their emotions, we can eventually enjoy each other. They can’t do this alone.
If I had immediately recognized all of my children’s dysregulated behaviors six years ago, I would have been inclined to attempt to “correct” them. My interventions would have been shaming and shame never leads to emotional or relational health.
If I’ve learned anything about dysregulation, it’s that I can’t discipline it out of my child. I can’t have a rational discussion about it with my child. When he’s dysregulated, he’s beyond reason. He needs my calm to regulate. I have to stop thinking of him as manipulative or self-sabotaging and put aside any thought that leads me down the road toward blaming him for where he’s at- a place he needs me to help him move past. Rather I need to recognize his fear, anxiety, and stress and call his behavior what it is- dysregulation. He needs me to set him up for success by limiting his opportunities for failure. He needs me to create safe predictability and rhythm into his life. He needs me to stop overwhelming him.
Those ideas were far beyond my comprehension six years ago. At the time, I didn’t have any calm to share. I was living in a constant state of overwhelmed myself.
Dysregulation doesn’t look the same in every person. I’ve gathered a list of indicators of dysregulated family members. Even though it’s imperfect, I’ve attempted to categorize the following behaviors in an effort to simplify. Some behaviors don’t fit neatly under a category (e.g., eating non-food items). Most of the following are either efforts to self-soothe or maladaptive survival skills.
- tense body
- exhibits emotions too intense for a situation
- excessive chattering
- silliness that seemed inexplicably unrelaxed (and not fun for anyone)
- obsessive organizing (often in a way that actually makes a mess)
- difficulty calming down
- making repetitive sounds or motions
- unusually loud voice volume
- attention difficulties
- incapable of rational discussion
- avoids eye contact
- shuts down completely
- unusually quiet voice volume
- spaces out
- unable to function at typical cognitive baseline
- breaks things
- hurts people or animals (or attempts to)
- feels attacked in circumstances that are outside of human control
- steals items (often that are meaningless to acquire)
- self-sabotages situations/events/gifts that had the potential to be enjoyable
- exhibits controlling or manipulative behaviors
- lies when the truth is obvious
- urinating on self or in personal space
Helping My Children Regulate
Even though I’m not a therapist or an occupational therapist, I have figured out a few ways to help my specific children feel safe so they can regulate their emotions. I now understand that I have to maintain a family rhythm that considers my children’s sensory needs and their ever-changing tolerance for activities and relationships. It is my failure as a parent and an emotional setback for my children every time I overwhelm them and their behavior suffers.
When I notice my child is unusually dysregulated, I need to do three things: 1) help him feel safe, 2) speak to his fears (if or when he has the ability to listen), and 3) lower his stress.
In order to do these three things, I need to know him well enough to notice if he needs containment or movement- both of which, when used correctly, help my children emotionally regulate. For us, movement seems to be more useful as a proactive tool and containment can be helpful both as part of our daily rhythm and as a tool used when felt safety has already been compromised. After felt safety has been established, movement can again be regulating. (The one exception for us is an outdoor chair that bounces because it is both containing and it can move, it can be regulating even when our children are suffering from a setback.)
What is Containment?
Containment is the act of providing a defined, safe place. We create safe places in the way we choose our family routine, set boundaries, create rules, repeat family mantras all based on our children’s relational and extracurricular abilities. Their behavior tells us when we need to modify our rules or routine to help them feel safer.
We also create physical safe places for our children if they are having difficulty regulating. Sometimes they need a cozy fort with pillows or a weighted blanket. I’ve heard of parents making closets into comfy retreat centers for their children to regulate in (with parental check-ins, of course). When not at home, we have to be more creative. For us, even a beach towel has become the defined space our child needed so he could begin to feel contained.
What Type of Movement is Regulating?
My children’s therapist is excellent at helping us learn ways for our children to regulate through movement. Some of our family favorites are swimming, jumping, swinging, rocking, and spinning. On a rainy day, our children find playing with play dough, weaving, or jumping on our indoor mini trampoline to be helpful for regulation. Any rhythmic, repetitive activity has the potential to be regulating.
Also, my kids love heavy work. Shoveling snow, digging anything, and scrubbing floors are all regulating activities for them. As our children complete chores, they also have increased confidence as they know they’re being helpful.
As I Attempt to Help my Children Regulate their Emotions, I Must Remember...
If something isn’t working, it just means the activity isn’t regulating for my child- yet. In the past, some of the above tools would have distracted my children or stressed them out even further. It shows major growth that previous distractions have become tools my children can now utilize to regulate their emotions. They make consistent progress as we give them what they can handle until it becomes clear they can handle more.
Even though rewatching our home videos was torture at first, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see clearly how far we’ve come as a family. Regulation is a slow road for many of our families. Some of us read through the points under “recognizing dysregulation” and think, This is my child- all day, everyday. For some of our families, we have to give our children months and months of safe activities and predictability knowing that merely making eye-contact with our child could seriously set our entire family back.
For us, felt safety has eventually led to co-regulation. Co-regulation is leading toward self-regulation. There isn’t a timeline we can follow.
I’m thankful to now recognize that dysregulation is the problem because I’m empowered to do my very best to give my child what he needs to do better.
There is hope.