Helping children with emotional and behavioral dysregulation
When my youngest daughter was little, I realized that she was a spirited child. She was strong-willed and highly reactive. When she got upset, she had no trouble letting us know. At the time, I read a wonderful book called “Raising Your Spirited Child” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka which had many helpful hints. Her book was first published in 1991 and is still relevant today.
In the last 25 years, innovations in neuroscience have helped us better understand the physiological basis for what we now call emotional and behavioral dysregulation.
The frontal cortex of our brains, which sits at the top and front of our brain, is responsible for evaluating and making decisions about information we receive from our limbic system, the seat of our emotional responses to the world around us. The limbic system, situated in the mid-brain, is also the center of our “flight or fight” response that we all know so well. The amygdala is the brain’s smoke detector, signaling our limbic system to flush our bodies with an adrenaline like hormone so that we can be ready to protect ourselves, run, or freeze if the threat is overwhelming. The brain’s mission — keep us alive.
In the 21st century, most of us have few real threats to our survival — except distracted drivers texting their buddies. In some kids and adults, these alarms go off with just a simple thought, like worrying about tomorrow’s math test.
In some children, for a variety of reasons, their smoke detectors go off frequently and are extremely sensitive. These youngsters have no idea what they are feeling or why they are feeling it, but they generally discharge this tension behaviorally — the well-known “fit” which can include screaming, pounding the floor, hitting a sibling, or kicking a chair.
When you ask your 7-year-old son, “Why did you kick the chair?” or “What are you feeling?” they have no idea. Everyone is frustrated. Children’s frontal lobes aren’t on-line until they’re older. Indeed, their frontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25.
Can we help our children strengthen this brain structure? Yes, by exercising it just like other muscles in our body.
Step 1: Identify the trigger that sets off their smoke detector. It’s usually simple — frustration, worry, anger, feeling shamed or humiliated, ambiguity or not know what’s coming next, boredom, and of course, hunger and fatigue. Sound familiar?
Step 2: Let your youngster know what they might be feeling. Remember, it’s an educated guess (you’re probably right). “I bet you’re worried about the test tomorrow;” “I think you’re feeling pretty bored right now;” “I imagine that you’re really frustrated that you can’t catch the ball.” It's likely to be something that just happened or is about to happen. We are teaching our kids how to identify what it is they’re experiencing — using words. We’re exercising their frontal cortex.
Step 3: Note how they are reacting to this emotion. “I bet you were feeling bored so you grabbed your little brother’s toy;” “I imagine you were mad that we ran out of ice cream, so you kicked the chair.” Keep judgements out of the equation. Stay neutral. We are just describing what happened. Kids know that these reactions aren’t well received.
Step 4: Help your youngster consider other choices. “Well, let’s think of other ways of handling that feeling of frustration. Do you have any ideas?” Now, we are giving the frontal cortex a real workout! Older kids will have some ideas, but you will probably need to help younger kids with several suggestions. Ask them to consider what the impact might have been with a different choice.
Step 5: Repeat often. We spend years reminding our kids to brush their teeth (sigh) before it becomes an engrained habit. It takes a long time for these undeveloped frontal lobes to develop awareness of these internal states, identifying the trigger, and consider choices of how to respond. Be patient and persistent.