“Misbehaviour” is Actually STRESS Behaviour
Supporting children through big feelings and challenging behaviours
This is a two-part blog series focusing on preventing and supporting children whose behaviour can become quite challenging when they are dysregulated.
Actually, it’s part three of a four-part blog series, and then part one of a two-part blog series… because one topic led me into another, and they’re all related… Also, because ADHD, guys. Obviously.
The most recent related post was Punishments Don’t Teach Skills and I’ll list all the related posts at the end of this one.
Misbehaviour is Stress Behaviour
Dysregulation = BIG feelings, feeling out of control, feeling highly emotional, experiencing an intense emotional response.
Many neurodiverse people experience their emotions very intensely and can become dysregulated more easily than neurotypical people.
Parents and adults, please remember: As difficult and challenging (and exhausting) it can be for us to support and co-regulate with a child who experiences extreme dysregulation, it is even more distressing for the child, who doesn’t have the cognitive development to understand and regulate these experiences. It can be scary to lose control of oneself.
These strategies can help all children, not just neurodiverse children:
- Define expectations before heading to an activity
- Give children a “heads up” before transitions whenever possible
- “We need to leave for school in 10 minutes, so please make sure you have everything ready that you need.”
- “Five minutes ’til dinner, guys!”
Dysregulation Happens (to everyone)
Dysregulation can happen for many reasons:
- Sensory overload: too hot, too cold, too loud, too bright, too everything
- Anxiety / Fear
- Frustration, sadness, hurt feelings
- Not feeling well
When a Child is Upset / Dysregulated
Please do NOT:
- Reject the child
- Forcing them to isolate from the family as a form of punishment is rejection
- Sending a child to their room or to a “time out” can be (but is not always) a form of rejection*
- It may send the message that they are not wanted when they are experiencing big feelings, and that they will not be supported when they have these big feelings
*That is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t teach our children to take space when they need it.
When they need it.
The difference is that we’re teaching our child a skill and giving them tools for self-regulation, but in the mean time, we need to co-regulate with them.
Co-regulation is when we help our children to regulate their emotions by soothing, comforting, and supporting them. We also teach emotional regulation skills by practicing and role-modelling them for our children.
Supporting a child to take space and time to regulate, empathizing with their feelings, and staying with them if they want or need you to will help preserve the relationship, their dignity, and their self esteem.
It’s important to emphasize the message, “I didn’t like that behaviour, but I still love you.”
Please also do not dismiss their feelings or experience
- “It’s not a big deal”
- “Don’t worry about it!”
- “That’s not what happened”
- Tell them to “calm down”
- Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.
- Take care to not become dysregulated yourself (easier said than done, trust me, I know)
A dysregulated adult cannot co-regulate with, or help regulate (i.e. calm), a dysregulated child.
Stay calm: Keep your body language and voice calm as much as possible. I f you are feeling frustrated, angry, or overwhelmed, ask for support from your co-parent, family member, or a friend if you can.
Role-model taking space yourself, or utilizing tools for self-regulation. It’s okay to say “ I’m feeling frustrated right now, I’m going to do [calming strategy], and I will come back to this conversation when I am feeling calm and ready.”
Please do not make threats
- “If you don’t _______, then _______!”
- This only serves to escalate things and further pushes the child into a fight or flight mode
Points to Remember:
- Dysregulation can be caused by many factors that are largely outside of the child’s control
- Listen, empathize, validate, and co-regulate
Dysregulation is often caused by factors that are outside of the child’s control
“Misbehaviour” = STRESS Behaviour
If a child is highly dysregulated (what we might call experiencing a “meltdown” or “flipping their lid”)
That is NOT the time to:
Discuss their behaviour
- This will further escalate them
- Their brain is offline and not currently capable of processing that information
- People cannot problem-solve when the logical and rational part of their brain (PFC) is offline
- This will increase frustration
Use logic to try to talk them out of their feelings.
- “…but you love swimming!”
- “Cmon, you know he didn’t mean that”
- “You’re over-reacting”
- “You’re being silly/dramatic”
- This is invalidating and the child will not feel heard
Feelings are not rational, so don’t expect them to be. A child’s experience is valid and real, even if they seem to us to be over-reacting. Their perception may be inaccurate, but their feelings are 100% real. The facts and logic can be dealt with once everyone is calm and safe, worry about that later.
Remember: Feelings are not rational
Stress = Fight or Flight Response
When people experience high levels of stress, their brains and bodies go into the fight or flight response.
The goal during this time is to help the child feel safe so that they can regulate (aka “calm down”) and get their PFC back online.
Keep Calm and Regulate On
- Take a slow, deep breath before responding
- Speak calmly and softy, using as few words as possible
- When the brain is in flight or flight, they won’t hear most of what you are saying.
- The brain will focus in on certain words that either confirm or deny their sense of safety.
- Get down to the child’s level (if safe to do so — keep a safe distance if needed)
- Convey the message “I’m going to help keep you safe”
- Model the calm you want to see in the child
Points to Remember:
- Feelings are not rational.
- A child’s experience is valid even if they seem to us to be over-reacting.
- Their feelings are 100% real.
- The facts and logic can be dealt with once everyone is calm.
When the Dust Finally Settles…
- Try your best not to take the child’s behaviour personally
- Even if they were trying to hit you or calling you names
- You can absolutely express that their behaviour hurt your feelings or made you feel unsafe
- It’s important to r emember that the child’s brain is completely offline during a meltdown and they are not in full control of their behaviour
Mona Delahooke and Looking Beyond Behaviours
When considering prevention:
Think in terms of problem-solving and reconciliation, rather than punishment
Part two (or is it part four?) of our blog series on preventing and supporting children whose behaviour can become quite challenging when they are dysregulated is available here.
About the Author
Jillian is an ADHD 2e Coach and Child Advocate in Manitoba, Canada.
Jillian has a diploma in Child & Youth Work and a Degree in Psychology, as well as being the parent of an amazing 2e/ADHD child.
Originally published at https://adhd2e.blogspot.com on April 16, 2021.