• My kid wants another cookie and I say no; he starts yelling and crying, body flailing on the floor.

  • My kid wants to play one more game and I tell him his iPad time is up; he yells at me and tells me I’m the worst mom in the world.

  • My kid wants to stay at the park and I tell her we have to go home for dinner; she starts screaming and hitting me.

 What’s going on here? Say it with me: A child is dysregulated.

Hm. That’s an interesting word, right? Not many words begin with “dys,” at least not ones I use in everyday conversation. Why should we all incorporating this word? A few reasons.

Let’s be honest, we all – me included! – have other choice words to describe the children in the above scenarios. Here’s a selection: tantrum, meltdown, freak out, out of control. We also think and say things like, “Why does my child give me such a hard time?” or “What a brat!” These thoughts come faster and more easily than this fancy word: dysregulated.

What is really happening for each kid in these scenarios? A child wants something… and a parent gets in the way of getting it. This is almost always at the core of children’s most difficult moments and, frankly, is almost always at the core of adults’ most difficult moments. Wanting something and getting denied is an incredibly difficult human experience. In these moments of thwarted desire, young children feel a range of very uncomfortable emotions, likely including: frustration, disappointment, anger, sadness. These feelings get to be so big that their bodies can no longer contain them. And when feelings become too big to manage, too big to contain, too big to soothe, children become dysregulated: incapable of managing on their own the feelings that are rising up in their bodies.

Here’s something interesting about regulation (the ability to be with and manage the feelings in your body): at any age, we have a balance of self-regulation ability (i.e., “I’m good! I can manage this feeling on my own!”) and co-regulation needs (i.e., “Anyone there? I could use some help!”). As adults, we can hopefully self-regulate a decent percentage of the time, though at any age we all sometimes need co-regulation. This is why we partner up, have close friends, seek out support groups, etc. But here’s the thing: kids require more co-regulation than adults.

I like saying dysregulated because it reminds me that I am needed… to help regulate my child. Instead of judging our children in these moments – by using harsh words, labeling them as problematic, comparing them to other kids – we activate a part of us that can be called into action to help.  Using dysregulated is not only a more accurate descriptor but it is also more effective, as it allows a parent to focus on the crux of the problem: emotion regulation. The first step to solving any problem is to accurately label what the problem is, and I promise you that the problem in all of these scenarios is dysregulation. So, let’s start thinking about that word, and let’s definitely start using it when talking about our children to other adults (i.e., instead of telling your partner “you have no idea what Olivia did at the birthday party. She totally freaked out and was screaming at me in the corner,” try out, “Olivia had a hard time at the party.  She got pretty dysregulated.”)

Kids who struggle to self-regulate need more co-regulation help in their early years. They need parents to stay calm, stay connected, and model healthy regulation in the face of their dysregulation. And then these kids will, slowly but surely, become more and more effective at self-regulation. Every kid’s timeline is different, but the process is the same: getting regulation help from a caregiver will lead to increased self-regulation abilities.

So, let’s go back to the examples from the beginning. A child wants another cookie and an adult says no, leading to the child flailing on the ground crying. This child is…dysregulated! He is saying, “Anyone there? I could use some help!”  The feelings around wanting a cookie and not having one (and likely some other feelings built up from the day) became so big that they passed the threshold of self-regulating ability. This is a parent’s call to action.

A parent tells her child that his iPad time is up and he yells, “I hate you! You’re the worst mom in the world!” Ok, ok, mean words… but let’s try not to take the bait! Why? Because this child is… dysregulated. If we translate these words into their underlying message, we come up with: “Anyone there? I could use some help!” The disappointment around ending an iPad game became too big – this child now has a co-regulation need. This is a parent’s call to action.

A parent tells his child that they have to leave the park, and the child starts kicking and screaming. This child just became … dysregulated.  He needs his parent’s help to feel safe and secure. This is a parent’s call to action.

Try This at Home:

  • Start thinking about this word.  See if you can think and say it one time over the next week.

  • Thinking it might sound like this, in your head: “Ugh… another tantrum! Sasha is always freaking out, I don’t even understand, she’s 5 years old and she’s still doing the same… oh… wait a second… there’s that word popping up.  Dysregulated.  Sasha is dysregulated.  That’s ok. I need to help regulate.  Ok, I’ll think about her age and her number of meltdowns later, time for me to help!”

  • Saying it aloud might sound like this, while talking to a friend at night about your day: “I think Gabe gets dysregulated a lot.  I’m working on staying calm when he’s upset, because he clearly needs that.  I’m really hoping that over time this means he’ll be able to find that calm for himself!” Or if this is too much (Hey, Becky, no one talks like that! Get your psychologist speak out of here!), stick to the first line: “I think Gabe gets dysregulated a lot.”