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 (!!!).


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.