Parenting

How to Soothe an Emotionally Dysregulated Child (While Staying Calm Yourself)

written by ALBIONA RAKIPI
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

I recently hosted a workshop for parents about emotional dysregulation. I mostly addressed how we, the parents, must work on keeping ourselves calm during these intense and, frankly, exhausting moments. Several parents I work with ask, “How can I help my child regulate their emotions when I struggle to do this for myself?”

Most of us weren’t taught to sit with discomfort or to process hard emotions and big feelings. We were likely told, “Stop crying,” or “You’re acting like a baby.” In extreme cases, you were punished for expressing a “negative” emotion. Most modern parents experienced a negative response when they were dysregulated. As a result, we don’t know how to soothe an emotionally dysregulated child and respond to our kids based on what we experienced ourselves. Here are ways parents can stay calm and soothe an emotionally dysregulated child.

Meet the Expert

Albiona Rakipi, SLP

Albiona has over 20 years of experience working with children and families, first as an early childhood educator and currently as a pediatric speech and language pathologist. She’s also founder of The Parenting Reframe, offering parenting coaching programs.

What is Emotional Dysregulation?

Developmentally speaking, frequent tantrums or moments of dysregulation in children under age 5 are appropriate. Children at this age are still developing self-regulation skills. A tantrum or meltdown is usually the result of an event or an undesired outcome for the child. For example, your child may experience a tantrum when you set a boundary, ask them to part with a favorite toy, tell them no, etc. These actions elicit an emotional response. Because they’re still learning how to regulate their emotions, they can’t manage this response, and they begin to tantrum, cry excessively, scream, etc. 

What Children Need When They’re Emotionally Dysregulated

How we respond and what we do next as parents matters. Here are three things children need when they are emotionally dysregulated:

1. An anchor

When our kids are upset and unable to calm down, we need to keep ourselves regulated. This is much easier said than done. It takes time, practice, and a process. When I coach families, we spend time working on this. 

Instinctually, we want the behavior to stop because that’s the way we were taught. Simultaneously, we recognize the importance of expressing feelings and giving our kids the tools to process and regulate themselves. Rather than teaching our kids to stop feeling a certain way, we want to validate the spectrum of emotions. 

The calmer you can stay when your child is dysregulated, the faster they can calm down. Consider yourself when you’re emotionally distressed. You typically seek the support of someone calm and grounded, who will hear you out and remain steady. You don’t seek the comfort of someone who becomes anxious or distressed when they see you struggling. Kids are no different. They need an anchor when the emotional storm hits. 

“You don’t seek the comfort of someone who becomes anxious or distressed when they see you struggling. Kids are no different. They need an anchor when the emotional storm hits.” 

In most cases, a parent does what I call “energy matching.” This is when the parent escalates with the child. This might look like a parent who yells when the child is dysregulated or assumes they must punish the child to make the tantrum stop. When you match your child’s energy in these moments of dysregulation, it rarely yields a positive outcome. You lash out and give an extreme consequence (“That’s it, you’re not going to any play dates this entire week!”). Or, you give in and feel terrible about your outburst. In either scenario, your child doesn’t walk away with the opportunity to build self-regulation skills. 

How to stay calm when your child is dysregulated

Learning to anchor down and ground yourself provides a road map for your child to do the same. I teach parents my four-step process, PARR (Pause, Acknowledge, Respond, Reflect). Taking one to three deep breaths before you respond can change the outcome for the better. Or, noticing your breath can help interrupt a reactive pattern. Learning to pause when you start to feel emotionally triggered will help you connect with your child rather than escalate the situation. 

how to soothe an emotionally dysregulated child
Source: Canva

2. Consistency and predictability 

When you have a child who has frequent meltdowns or tantrums, it’s frustrating and overwhelming. It’s also exhausting trying to figure out what to do. As a result, you may respond differently each time. First, you might try talking to your child. Next, you might ignore the tantrum, and after that, you might decide a consequence is the right course of action. 

Inconsistent responses leave kids confused, resulting in more dysregulation. When they feel out of control, they look to their parents to be their safe space. When your responses are calm and predictable, they help your children regulate emotions faster. These consistent responses can signal safety to their system, and they start to gain the skill of self-regulation. When you apply a guess-and-check model, the dysregulation only increases. 

3. Less stimulation

When children are dysregulated, so too are their sensory systems. When they’re having tantrums, many parents I work with desire to talk to their children as their first response. For example, they may say, “Why are you crying? Use your words, calm down, or I had to take your toys because you weren’t listening.” When we talk to our children during a tantrum or a moment of dysregulation, their already taxed sensory system can’t take in any more. The burden is too much, and we place more demands on them. 

In most cases, the dysregulation increases, and the tantrum becomes more intense. You feel defeated because you’re trying to say the right things. However, it’s not the most ideal approach for how to soothe an emotionally dysregulated child. Resist explaining or talking to your child at this moment. Stay calm, stay with them, and validate their feelings while holding your boundaries. Let your child experience their emotions while staying calm. 

“Resist explaining or talking to your child at this moment. Stay calm, stay with them, and validate their feelings while holding your boundaries. Let your child experience their emotions

As counterintuitive as it may seem, you should work on regulation while your child is regulated. Save your explanations or questions for a different time when they’re calm and listening. In most cases, your child doesn’t need an explanation for why they did something wrong; they know so much more than we give them credit for.

How to Mitigate Tantrums and Build Self-Regulation Skills

I teach a process called the boundary-empathy-sandwich to help parents respond to or mitigate a tantrum. First, you state the boundary: “You can’t have a cookie before dinner.” Next, you express empathy for how your child is likely feeling: “I know it’s hard when we don’t get something we really want. I get that.” Last, you restate the boundary: “But you can’t have a cookie before dinner.” 

Helping your child gain self-regulation skills takes time. There’s a reason I work with families for a minimum of two months. We have to be kind and gentle with ourselves. Patience is an overlooked and underestimated virtue, but it is vital in showing ourselves grace and helping our children develop into resilient and emotionally healthy human beings. 

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