Your Highly Emotional Child Who Tantrums Over Everything
Do you feel like your child is highly emotional? Is she highly sensitive to corrections, falling apart if things are not perfect? Does your son seem out of control emotionally, erupting like a volcano at every turn?
Your child sounds like thousands of other kids who have difficulty with emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the ability to manage or cope with intense emotions in socially appropriate ways. Basically, not having major tantrums at every turn.
Right now it may feel like your child will be tantrumming forever, but this won’t always be the case. As your child matures and with your support your child will stop having tantrums. But first let’s look at how emotional regulation develops and why your child is having such a hard time.
How does Emotional Regulation Develop?
The brain develops from the bottom up. This is important to focus on when we discuss emotional regulation.
The lowest part of the brain, which develops first, is the brainstem. The brainstem controls the basics for survival: heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and other features which are termed “survival-related”. Coming just above the Brainstem is the Diencephalon. This area of the brain is closely linked to the brainstem, in terms of the functions and its controls. Neither area is capable of conscious thinking. Continuing up, is the limbic system. This area stores emotional information (this is where your highly sensitive child lives most of the time). Finally, you reach the Neocortex, which controls abstract thought and cognitive memory.
Knowledge about the brain is important as we try to support children’s developing in a socio-emotional way, where they can learn to get their needs met effectively. Being able to link the behaviors we see on the outside to what is happening on the inside, gives us an opportunity to provide effective support for your child. This then will allow her to internalize and master the skill of self-regulation. Basically, the younger the child is, either developmentally or chronological (ideally you want these two be the same but early experiences of trauma or developmental delays can widen this gap) the more support they will need to regulate (return to calm/relaxed state) themselves.
The lower parts of the brain are not capable of conscious thought but rather it’s capability focuses on the most basic of the brain features. Just like animals, our brainstems are always looking for the cues for threats out there. Our brainstems are responsible for our survival, therefore looking out for cues for unsafe situations is it’s job. We all start as fetuses depending on our mother’s for survival while in the womb. Once we are born, we are faced with other threats from our environment, and here too we rely on our mothers, fathers, and/or other caregivers to keep us safe, loved, and supported.
As we grow we become more aware of ourselves as separate, and we have the potential to affect out environment. We move from having our parents be the keys to our survival to relying on ourselves (brain) for survival. The brain is responsible for storing information and when experiences in life happen our brain matches this with other experiences that we have had in the past in order to determine safety/threat level and what action needs to be taken. Dysregulation occurs when the brain responds to sensory (information coming through our five senses) input in a manner that triggers the alarm (fear) state. Remember this alarm is set to protect us from threats and ensure our survival.
Therefore when a child becomes dysregulated, which means they are no longer in the calm/relaxed state due to actual or perceived threat (fear), they are operating in the lower parts of their brain. The child is less perceptive of time, less cognitive, more reflexive and more emotional. Your child, in this sate, will have their ability to listen, learn, comprehend, and cope be significantly impacted.
No matter the reason why a dysregulated brain state can occur, we should not be disciplining a child’s behavior or labeling it something that it is not.
So armed with the knowledge that the brain develops from the bottom to the top, when we go to support your dysregulated child, our support (re-regulating the child) begins from the bottom and slowly rises to the top. To do this you must implore the 3 R’s: Regulate, Relate, and Reason
Step #1: Stay grounded (regulated)! Stay in the present moment, breathe steadily, focus your attention on your child, and clear your mind. If you yourself have a difficult time regulating yourself then please check out the these Grounding Techniques.
Step #2: Get down on their level. Nothing signals the brains threat alarms than something big and tall looming over us. Remember in this heightened state for your child everything appears larger so by getting down to their level, eye level, you immediately take that threat away.
Step #3: Regulate-Focus on soothing. Since your child is in the lower parts of their brain trying to reason with them won’t work. At this stage you’re all about making them feel calm, safe and loved.
Step #4: Relate. As they calm down use short sentences. You can validate their feelings with your words and tone of voice while also providing them with a hug or even taking their hand. Use short sentences such as “I know you feel upset right now, this is very hard”. Your focus here is connecting with your child.
Step #5: Reason. Once your child is all the calm, now is the time to talk about alternatives to their behaviors while still reinforcing the limit you set before. You can reassure them that you live and care about them but the behavior they are exhibiting is not ok.
Understanding The 3 R’s
Dr. Perry , who is someone I have been studying and whose strategies I often utilize, use the three R’s for this process. Regulate, relate, and reason. This is the process of moving from the bottom to the top in order to support re-regulation of a dysregulated child. Our goal ultimately is for the child to internalize these techniques and develop the capacity of self-regulation.
This method is often challenging for us adults, as we have our own triggers (usually revolving around our own life experiences, which feed our beliefs and value, which make up our worldview). We typically try to re-gain control of the situation/child by reasoning with them. Sometimes this looks like questioning, demanding reflection, commanding, yelling, punishing, shaming, etc. As we continue to reason with the child and they respond back in a way that challenges how we feel, we as the caregivers become dysregulated along with the child, leading to a battle of wills. Although, it feels like this approach will help the child surrender, from a brain state point of view, it will fuel more fear and put the child in a lower (or terror) brain state. Hence, the child will typically become more reflexive, which means their emotion and/or behavior will intensify instead of calm.
You have no desire to have intense battles with your child, but rather you have hopes and dreams that your child will grow up to be happy and healthy.
As caregivers, you have this ultimate goal in mind. You provide unconditional love for your children and even though their difficult behavior often challenges your own mental capacity, keeping this thought in mind will help you to help them with their intense feeling. By using techniques to regulate the child in a way which will open up the opportunity to build relationship, will decrease the number of battles but also the number of meltdowns as both you and your child learn how to regulate. A relational approach helps your child become capable of reasoning with you, to feel calm (safe), and be in a clearer place to reason and comprehend. If your child can be clear and calm, (which mans they are moving up and out of their lower brain states) then they will be capable to make better decisions and internalize, and ultimately master self-regulation.
The different Brain states and what they mean.
We go in and out of different brains states all the time and so do our children. Basically sensory information comes in, the brain processes the information, and then organizes it, leading to an action. This is important because behavior is influenced by which state the brain is in when the trigger occurs. Thus, a child (or even us caregivers) can be in the:
- neo-cortex when calm (Ideal)
- sub-cortex when alert
- limbic system when alarmed
- mid-brain when fearful
- brainstem when in terror (survival is the focus of attention)
Which brain state your child (and also us the caregivers) are in, impacts the ability to comprehend and process information. There is a significant difference between how one can process in a fear state than how they process when they are calm. The capability to comprehend and process…:
- When a child is in a calm brain state -they can think abstractly,
- When a child is in an alert brain state-they think concretely,
- When a child is in an alarm brain state-they think emotionally,
- When a child is in a fear brain state-they think reactively,
- When a child is in a terror brain state-they are reflexive.
Therefore before we move about trying to help a child learn, or reason with a child, we must first regulate, then relate, then reason. Regulate means moving from alarm into calm. Relating supports the calm state by focusing on the relationship, which is the basis for building support. Finally, once in the fully calm state, reasoning can occur which will provide new brain memory which will support the child with being able to self-regulate themselves, which is our ultimate goal.
Remember: Our brains are wired in a manner which serves to ensure our survival.
The greater the fear, the more the lower parts of the brain take over. Remember: fear-based brain states are designed to focus on a way to escape and/or cope with the intensity of what is felt and provide the ability to deal with that issue in a singular way. Again heres the linkage:
- Calm=neo-cortex. Thoughts about your past, present, and future (extended time).
- Alert=sub-cortex. Thoughts about past, present and immediate future (hours and days)
- Alarm=limbic. Thoughts about past and present (hours and minutes).
- Fear=mid-brain. Thoughts about past and present (minutes and seconds)
- Terror=loss of any sense of time.
*Keep in mind when I refer to thoughts about past, I’m talking about the brain linking a current trigger to something in the memory that may not be accessible on a conscious level (such as early trauma experiences which occur prior and/or while language formation is being utilized by the child).
Therefore depending on the child’s brain state, they unable to hear consequences, punishments, or issues that are time-related. Now I’m not saying don’t discipline your child, the key is that 1) discipline is about teaching your child how to internalize rules and manage different affective states when they are triggered and 2) the timing of your discipline is important to reinforce the message you want to send for your child. The consequence comes when the child is in the calm state. The state at which they can comprehend reasoning, ultimately leading to the ability to self-regulate/soothe.