The Moxie Blog

Parenting a Child with Poor Emotion Regulation

When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.  ~L.R. Knost

The Intense Child (an understatement)

Do you have one of those “intense” children, a “spirited” one, a bit passionate . . . alright –  a HARD one?  Do you have the kid who falls apart at the drop of a hat, loses his temper at the slightest provocation, and melts down at the least frustration? Your child has poor emotion regulation.  A more common problem lately in our modern world.

Are you in a constant emotional tiptoe around this child because you have learned . . . the hard way . . . after repeated attempts . . . that the typical discipline approaches do not work?   You tried time out, scolding, removing favorite things, removing privileges, threatening, yelling, and maybe even spanking.  All the standard approaches only seem to make the problem worse.

A more typical child with more typical regulation skills can reign it in when a parent sets a boundary, particularly if the parent’s tone indicates that the child has crossed a line.  More regulated children can zip their lip or modify the misbehavior.   If you yell or take a privilege away, those children may slink off to lick their wounds, but they accept the consequence and soon move on.

The poorly regulated child does not.  This child can’t reign it in.  Emotions ride roughshod over her (and over you).  And as soon as YOU indicate frustration or irritation,  things only get worse.  Your irritability meeting her irritability causes some form of combustion and her emotions escalate exponentially.  Whining becomes a full blown meltdown.  Frustration becomes a tantrum.  A punishment becomes THE  . . END . .  OF . . THE . .  WORLD (!!!).

Sigh

And recovery is slow.  This child might tantrum or meltdown for an hour or longer.  He may not recover that day and may fall asleep upset.  He wakes the next day feeling fine, but you are on edge, waiting for the next crisis over nothing.

The possible roots of poor emotion regulation

Intense children require some specialized parenting strategies, some that even seem a little counterintuitive.  However, understanding regulation issues and providing support instead of punishment can put everyone on a better path.

  • First, let’s look for some reasons for being poorly regulated. Knowing the reason does not change things, but it gives a little insight.
    • Trauma – kids who have experienced neglect or abuse will often have very poor regulation of emotions. They can’t help it.  The trauma and neglect created some hair-trigger emotionality.  Also, dysregulation may have been modeled for them.  Children adopted from institutions or from foster care are likely to have a trauma history.  Building their regulation skills will take time
    • Developmental Challenges – Attention Deficit Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Language Disability, Autism – these challenges can drain a child’s coping strategies pretty quickly.
    • Family History of Mood Disorder – if you have a family history of mood disorder, your child may be showing some signs of this.
    • I DON”T KNOW!!! – no trauma, no (noticeable) developmental challenges, no depression or anxiety. This kid is just intense. You think maybe it runs in the family (not your side, of course) as you give a glowering side glance at the spouse.  (You have heard stories from his mother.) Or maybe you recognize this perfectly clearly.  You remember being an intense child (but, surely, you think you weren’t this bad).  Which brings us to . . .

Pesky contributing factors

  • Next, it’s good to know what exacerbates the regulation problem on any given day:
    • Hunger or Thirst – Hunger will make everything worse, but your poorly regulated child cannot even tell that hunger as crept up on him.
    • Fatigue – Once this child is tired, all bets are off. And poorly regulated children can wear out more easily than other children, so the day needs to end earlier.
    • Lack of Exercise – Movement is calming and alerting.  Daily active play, dance, a sport or exercise can be essential, but organized team sports may be too great a demand.  Keep it simple and fun.
    • Over-Stimulation – Too many people, too much noise or too many demands can wear this child out.  These may be situations that a more typical child manages (and enjoys), but the poorly regulated child cannot handle it for too long (even if they love it at the start).

      Many factors can make a child a little gremlin
    • Screen Time – too much screen time can feel like a good thing when your hard-to-manage child is quietly zombied out in front one, but try taking it away and you can be face to face with the regulation problem. Screen time typically makes regulation issues worse.
    • Junk food – Poorly regulated children can be hypersensitive to poor nutrition.  Sugar, food dyes, processed food can contribute to dysregulation.
    • Illness – I knew a child whose first sign of a strep infection was increased irritability and meltdowns. The physical symptoms would show up a day or so later.

You cannot avoid all of these things all of the time (though you can try).  Just be aware that each can contribute to irritability and hypersensitivity.  Be ready to control what you can when some other events are unavoidable.

Now here are some strategies for building regulation.  (You will notice that there is no magic wand.  Building these skills simply takes time and consistent support):

  • MODEL THE COPING YOU WANT TO SEE!!! (this is most important) – This child is irritated, frustrated and exasperated. She has caused you to feel irritated, frustrated and exasperated, but BECOMING irritated, frustrated, or exasperated will only escalate the situation.  If you would like this child to calm down, you have to start by modeling calm.  This does not mean ignore the behavior or encourage the behavior or give into the behavior.  It just means that you will model a calm response.  It helps if you realize that your child does not WANT to be a dysregulated mess and she really can’t control it.

    When a child melts down, try not to follow suit
  • Look for any “contributors” and resolve them – Feed the hungry child (but not candy or junk food), water the dehydrated one. Get some rest or go play depending on the situation.  Remove the child from an over-stimulating situation (even if it means calmly carrying her kicking, screaming, flailing self out).
  • Set Boundaries – you don’t have to present this as punitive, just matter of fact. “You can’t be at the party while you are screaming.  Let’s stay here (the car, a back room) until you feel calm or we can go home and try a party another day. It’s okay to not stay and it’s okay to try another day.” Screaming, flailing child may not like this, but really, what else is to be done.  An angry threat of, “We will NEVER go to a party again if you do not calm down RIGHT NOW” is just an empty threat.  Do not even present the consequence as a punishment.  Why say, “you are in this room in time out until you calm down.”  Do not bring up punishment because that does not make anyone feel better.  Just re-iterate that she can’t be at the party when she is so upset.  Then be supportive.  Position yourself between the child and the exit and calmly hold your ground in case your child tries to take matters into her own hands.   (I realize this is really hard to do when you have more than one child and the other children are being good as gold.  If the dysregulation is that bad, most outings will have to be a two parent project).
  • Recognize Any Progress – We don’t want to reward a tantrum or meltdown, but we do want to recognize any improvement.  “Wow, the last time you got upset, you cried for an hour, but this time you were done in 30 minutes.  You are learning to be the boss of those strong emotions.”  You don’t have to give prizes, just praise.  Your child needs a little empowerment over the situation too.
  • Use Humor When You Can – Children who can’t regulate their emotions may simply need something to laugh about. This can defuse a situation.  For example, I once worked with a mother who had a very dysregulated 9-year-old daughter. This child would scream at her younger brother for the slightest provocation (such as stepping into the room), however, she was extremely nurturing with the family pets.  She never hurt or yelled at animals.  I suggested that the next time this girl screamed at her brother, her mother should say, “In this house, we treat everyone like an animal.  If you would not do it to the dogs, you cannot do it to your brother.  Now go pet your brother and help him feel better.”  The mother immediately saw that this would help at least a little, “That would make her laugh.”  A laugh is a foot in the door for a dysregulated child.  I added that if her daughter would not go pet her brother, the mother should.  This gives the attention to her brother and models making up for bad behavior in a fun way even if the daughter will not do it yet.
  • Let It Go – After the meltdown, blow-up, or tantrum is over and dealt with as calmly as possible, let it go. Even if the situation did not resolve entirely (Yep, you did have to leave that party), there is no reason to harp on the situation.  Often, once a dysregulated child is calm, he has moved on as if the problem had not happened.  This can be very frustrating and worrisome to parents because it seems that the child does not realize the impact of his behavior.  That’s true and you can calmly work on that in little bits and pieces, but harping on it for the next hour (or two) will only extend the misery for both of you.  If it is possible to have a productive discussion, by all means, try (“I think next time we should leave the party BEFORE the noise starts to bother us because why stay if it is not fun anymore.  What do you think?).  If the child is calm enough to have that discussion, try it.  But do not lecture.  It will be like lecturing a dyslexic child into reading better.
  • Neutral Time Discussions – Do not be afraid of talking about the meltdowns, tantrums or dysregulation during a peaceful neutral time.  Discussions will not work in those intense moments of meltdown, but may work fine when your child is calm.  Your child is not proud of those meltdowns, so she is not going to bring them up.  Most parents want to avoid any triggers as well, but being able to discuss it shows that the problem is manageable.   A weekly meeting can be held with the agenda of previewing plans for the upcoming week and reviewing the past week and what could go better. What was hard to manage?  What might be tried differently this week?  “Let’s try my idea for a week, then your idea the next week and see what works best.”  This is a chance for a child to air grievances as well.  Be respectful of legitimate grievances, but put not-so-reasonable grievances in perspective (e.g., “yeah, I know having a little brother is rough, but he’s staying.  I think you will appreciate him when you are both older.  We are in this for the long run.”). It’s okay to inject the lighter mood because intense kids typically do not know how.  Model “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”

Do seek more support if needed. If your child’s emotional upheaval is endangering to himself or others, or you simply feel that you need some guidance because your child overwhelms you (as well as himself), then seek some professional help.  Counseling around parenting intense children can give some perspective and precision with strategies.  It also ensures there is not a more serious issue at play (such as a mood disorder).

Kids with poor emotion regulation can be exhausting, but in equal turns, their enthusiasm and passion can be exhilarating.  Teach them that their emotions are powerful and that they can use all that emotional intensity to change the world.  Remind them that it is your job to help them use their powers for the forces of good.  Then laugh and go find them a cape.

Workaround-You can’t fix everything at once

It’s okay to go around a problem instead of solving it.  At least for a bit. I hear it’s called a “workaround.”  I am trying to make it feel like less work, but whatever . . . the point is you don’t have to be fixing everything, all the time!  It’s exhausting for both you and your child.  You can’t just let things slide (well, you can and must some of the time for your sanity), but you can develop some workarounds.

Does your day feel like this? Does your child’s?

Even with just a few learning or behavioral diagnoses, your child can have A LOT of challenging behaviors.  For example, say your child has a “disorder of regulation.”   You have the child who feels EVERY emotion strongly.  Happy is over-excited, angry is furious, and anxious is terrified.   There is no lid on THIS child.  Plus, the sensory system is a little too awake.  Every noise, every touch, every taste, even every smell comes on too strong for this one. Most foods are met with revulsion (no small emotions remember).  Most activities are met with aversion.  And trying paying attention when every emotion, every noise, every touch, every smell, every THING is a distraction.  This child is constantly called out for not getting something done that every other child seems to breeze through.  The teacher is trying to be subtle, but you can sense medication is on her mind.

The challenges of each day seem overwhelming.

This child with little ability to regulate emotions, sensations and attention is hard to wake up and then irritable in the morning. Breakfast is a challenge because of texture issues (the first tears of the day), getting dressed is tough because clothes trigger tactile anxieties. You are now running late for school, but this child does not have a hurry button.  Try using a firm voice and this child thinks you are “yelling” (more tears and curled up into a non-moving ball).  You make it to school, so now this child spends the day distracted and disorganized by the noise and demands.  It is exhausting.  The teacher e-mails about some concerning behaviors . . . again. Lunch in the stinky, clamoring cafeteria is a no-go. No lunch = Hungry.  The afternoon is a wash for your child. This child gets in the car starving and irritable; complaining all the way home. Anything any sibling does in the car is worth lashing out physically and verbally.  There is no desire for soccer, or dance class, or chess club or Scouts.  Your child wants to go HOME!  Once home, television seems to be the only consolation.  Pulling away for homework is a battle, as is homework itself.  In desperation, dinner revolves around what this child might eat.  Maybe a calming bath after dinner will help.  Everyone is exhausted, but it is hard for this child to settle to sleep. By 10, things are finally quiet, but you know that 10pm is too late for a complete night’s sleep for this child.  Tomorrow looms.

If your child has a lot of challenging behaviors, it feels like the day is non-stop management.  And really, you have been told that management of the problems is not enough. You need to fix them.  But being a full-time therapist/mom is not really an option when running a household, managing other kids, and working (as is often the case).  So guilt is your constant companion.

But really, you can’t fix everything at once.  And often you simply can’t fix everything.

It’s okay to set some priorities and find some workarounds for the other problems. Some might be permanent workarounds, some might be temporary while you work on other things.  But keep reminding yourself, “YOU CAN”T FIX EVERYTHING AT ONCE!”  Cut yourself some slack because, really, it is the only way to survive sometimes.

First, set some priorities on the most challenging behaviors. These might include:

  • No physical hitting or hurting others – Have a pre-set plan for hitting/hurting with a simple consequence that has been discussed in advance. Use your calm voice because meeting disregulation with anger likely doubles the disregulation (this child really can’t help it).The plan needs to include noticing every possible time the child does not hit (but might have) and compliment that. This may sound like, “I hear from your voice that you found that irritating, but you did not hit.  Be proud of yourself for that.”
  • Limiting screen time to two 30 minute segments in a day – Too much screen time makes regulation issues worse.  So screen time might include some time in the morning, once the child is ready for school, and in the afternoon for a bit. It would be helpful to have a timer on the device so that it shuts itself off without a parent having to intervene.
  • Not bickering with siblings (wouldn’t that be heaven) – This is a team effort and will take team discussion, but is a worthy goal. Bickering can likely be reduced.  Start with some “data collection.”  When does bickering happen the most – in the car, at breakfast, at bedtime?  See if there is a contributing factor – someone is hungry, someone can’t bear to be nudged when over-tired, someone is hot?  Try to fix that contributing factor first.  Then have a frank discussion of what can be done to reducing the fighting (do this when everyone is calm and NOT fighting).  Then start practicing and complimenting.  Its best to point out the “no bickering” times because the kids have to learn to recognize and appreciate those as well.

Some of you are snorting, “My child could undermine any one of those in under two minutes.”  Yes, I know.  It’s hard.  And if it is that hard, do see a parenting therapist.  Parenting tough kids requires some professional support.

But the real point of this post is “the workaround.”  Sometimes we need to just go-around the problem for at least awhile.  Some examples include:

  • Wearing the “wrong” clothes – For the sensory child, just skip clothes with tags, internal pockets, tight elastic, rough seems. For the apraxic child, skip buttons, zippers or anything complicated.  Heck, skip variety.  Find the clothes your child is comfortable wearing and get enough to last all week. A lot of clothing issues dissipate in adolescence with the strong desire to fit in and wear what everyone else is wearing.
  • Getting dressed in the morning – Mornings are rushed and many kids can stall on getting dressed. Simply eliminate that problem in pre-adolescent children by letting them sleep in their comfy sensory clothes.  After an evening bath, put on some comfy leggings, sweat pants, or gym shorts; add a comfy top and you are done for 24 hours.   Before the age of body odor, the clothes can be slept in and not be stinky.  In the morning, there is one less things to worry about.
  • Doing ALL of the homework (or any of it frankly) – Depending on your child’s challenges, the end of the day may be a point of exhaustion. None of us do our best work at that time.  Talk to the teacher and ask for permission to “sign off” on what was possible on any given night.  Sometimes that may be nothing.  That’s ok.  If your child is exhausted, what learning is happening?  Compliment your child on any work completed because sometimes any work is an accomplishment.
  • Eating a wide range of foods – Yes, I believe in eating from all the food groups, but that is not the same as eating a wide variety of foods. Cut yourself and your child some slack if you both need a break.  Do let your child know that fruits and vegetables, as well as proteins, are important and will be on their plates every day.  But then only put what they will eat at this time.  Don’t push the “just one bite” of other foods.  If they will only eat two fruits (and one of those is apple sauce), so be it.  Those foods should show up twice a day at least.  If there is only one vegetable (carrot sticks), then so be it.  Meals may be repetitive for this child, just make sure they are easy for you.  Continue to remind children that you will continue to help them get used to textures and it will get better. Useful “pre-tasting’ strategies include having them just touch new foods, handle new foods (e.g., can you grab me a tomato out of the fridge please), and stir or pour new foods.  If the problem is really bad, an occupational or feeding therapist may be needed.
  • Eating in the cafeteria – It’s loud. It smells funny. And you might touch something slimy.  It is hard to have a calm, enjoyable meal (even though 200 other children seem to be doing it, sort of). See if your child can have lunch elsewhere.  Maybe a friend can come along.
  • Skip the after school activities – If your child is exhausted and dreads after school activities, just skip them right now. Therapies, yes.  Those should be geared to your child’s needs and abilities.  But soccer or piano or swim team, maybe not. For some kids, the right activity is a life saver and a treat.  If you find it, great.  But be willing to forego the ‘well-rounded’ child until you find the right activities. There is a lot to be said for downtime.  It promotes creativity.

There are as many workarounds as there are kids.  You have to find the right ones for your child and your family.  You may also have to let go of some strongly held beliefs about meals, pajamas, and being well-rounded.  When your child is different, you do things differently.  It does not mean you can’t slowly nudge your child towards more typical expectations.

But cut yourself (and your child) some slack.

(And Child Decoded is here to help)

Homework

I like the teacher who gives you something to take home and think about besides homework.-Lily Tomlin

Labor Day is over, so just about anyone going back to school is now there. And where there is school, there is usually homework.  Although research is not clear on the benefits of homework, about 70% of teachers assign homework.  So it’s probably coming your child’s way.  I, for one, do believe in the value of some homework, even if simply to introduce the idea that some things done in the classroom might have value outside of the classroom.  Let’s face it; it’s useful to know how to work with fractions in daily living, not to mention basic reading and writing.  Kids might as well be helped to learn to use those skills outside of the supervised classroom.  Plus, why are we teaching civics, history, social studies and literature if we do not care whether kids learn to be thinking members of society.  And finally, there will be homework in college, so if you are planning on your kids going to college (and graduating), they should be able to handle some homework.

Continue reading “Homework”

August 2014 News about kids, ADHD and the classroom

Just a quick entry.  It is back to school and exciting for most.  For some parents, it is a time of anxiety because for some kids, it is an acute loss of freedom of movement that they desperately need.  As school starts, lets remember that movement is great and classroom structure is supportive.

Here is a reminder that exercise may be critical for kids with ADHD (adults too).

And because exercise won’t be enough,  here are some classroom strategies for helping kids with ADHD.

 

Back-to-School Knots

I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.  Winston Churchill

Yeay! It’s back-to-school time!

Back to a schedule. Back to knowing where your kids are for most of the day.  Back to a modicum of predictability (till someone throws up).  We see all the happy mommies and daddies ushering their kids onto the playground, finding their new teacher, helping haul in the school supplies.  It’s all happy.

But not really.

There are parents trying to smile, but their stomachs are in knots.  They know from experience (last year or for multiple years) that all is not happy.  They want it to be happy.  They want to be there smiling and excited like the other parents.  They are putting on a brave face for their kids. Best foot forward, hope for the best, this year will be different . . . please.

Continue reading “Back-to-School Knots”

Exercise

A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.  – A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Finally, EXERCISE, the last of the four foundations to cover, but certainly not the least. In fact, I consider each of the four foundations – nutrition, sleep, hydration and exercise – to be equally important for learning.  However, something had to be last in the line-up and exercise ended up being it.  (There is deep psychology at work there for me).

But exercise is SOOOOO IMPORTANT for learning.

I am not just talking push-ups, pull-ups and running a mile.  Exercise includes anything that gets your body moving, from climbing at the playground to digging a hole to China.

There is tons of research about exercise and its positive (great, incredible, beneficial) impact on learning.

  • In the classroom, not only has exercise been shown to improve grades, it has been shown to reduce behavior and discipline problems.
  • Exercise also increases activity in the frontal lobes, the part of the brain important for organization, planning and judgment.   (And how many of our kids need work in that area? And how many of us?

Continue reading “Exercise”

The Summer Slide

Ahh, Summer Slide-reducing, avoiding and out-smarting it

The Summer Slide.  It sounds like fun, doesn’t it? A water park ride, maybe a new dance.  But it’s not. It’s something more insidious, lurking and skulking around our plans for a carefree break from school.  It is one more thing for parents to worry about.  Summer Slide refers to the loss of academic skills that happen over the summer break.    I mean really, we (teachers, parents and kids) are ready for that summer break.  A break from homework, from book reports, from math sheets, from standardized tests, from any tests. AND NOW WE HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THE SUMMER SLIDE?!?

It’s not fair. . . but it’s there.

Continue reading “The Summer Slide”

Hydration-Drinking for Thinking

Hydration, not the most exciting of the four foundations for learning. How can hydration compete with exercise?  Exercise really gets the heart pumping.    Nutrition is also a bit more interesting. Frankly, it has more texture.  Now, you would think that hydration could beat sleep for excitement, . . . . . but not when you’re a parent.

Water is the driving force of all nature.  Leonardo da Vinci

Hydration, the step-child of nutrition, is important, even if it is not exciting.  Our bodies are made up mostly of fluid and this accounts for over half of our body weight.  Our brain floats in fluid. We know that even mild dehydration can lead to physical problems ranging from headaches to faintness to a weak rapid pulse.   However, did you realize that a mere 1-2% decrease in optimal hydration can result in drops in cognitive performance?  And while cognitive skills decline, irritability is shown to go up.  And this will happen before you even feel thirsty (in fact, feeling thirsty means you are more than a little dehydrated).

Continue reading “Hydration-Drinking for Thinking”

Sleep, Attention, Learning & Behavior

Sleep is the best meditation.  Dalai Lama

Nutrition, sleep, hydration, and exercise-I am reviewing the four foundations of learning (and life).

The second of our four foundations is sleep.  Science is still trying to figure out exactly why we need to sleep . . . but, while they are sorting this out, let me assure you that we DO need to sleep.  We really do.  Adults definitely sacrifice sleep for other things (not the least of which is surfing the internet-so thanks for reading).  And we often think that, because our kids are getting more sleep than we do, they are getting enough.  But they may not be.  And lack of sleep is linked to several problems with learning, behavior, and attention.

Continue reading “Sleep, Attention, Learning & Behavior”

Nutrition and Learning Go Hand-in-Hand

Nutrition is huge for learning.  There is now tons of research showing that a good quality diet has a measurable impact on behavior, attention and learning.  And within the group of kids I see for learning evaluation, MOST of the parents are well aware of what a “good” diet is and strive to get good foods into their kids.  Still, the basics bear repeating.  When a busy parent is trying to get the kids through breakfast while packing lunches and doing every other little thing that needs to be done, there can be drift.  One day, a parent looks at the table and realizes she has drifted to serving instant oatmeal with brightly colored little marshmallow dinosaurs.  When that happens, it’s time to correct the course (again) (I’ve been there).

Continue reading “Nutrition and Learning Go Hand-in-Hand”