Staying calm and regulating when a child is melting down, having tantrums, or losing
control is one of the most difficult tasks of parenthood. One of the reasons is something
called mirror neurons - where when you observe the behaviors or emotions of another the
neurons in your brain fire as if you were having that same experience. This is why if you are
walking down the street and see someone smile, well... you start to smile too!
The difficult news is that when the person in the room with you is a very angry, distressed, or
enraged child - your neurons in your brain start to fire the exact same way too, leading to
you as the grown up to become dysregulated too!
Our nervous systems also “talk” to one another and can pick up energy, cues, and clues
from other human beings. This is why you can walk into a room where an argument just
occurred and something “feels off”. We are wired to get clues of safety or danger from
other human beings and just being in the presence of a dysregulated nervous system can
make your nervous system dysregulate too.
And sometimes? The behavior of your child is pretty dangerous or aggressive, so your
nervous system is doing exactly what it thinks it needs to do to keep itself safe. By
powering up your body with a fast heart, fast breathing, and chemical responses, it is
getting your body ready for action to fight or run away.
But, here is the hardest part, the number one thing children need from grown ups is to be a
container for regulation, or external co-regulation. It’s the task of using your regulatory
capacities as a grown up (with a fully developed brain with abilities to make good
choices) to help co-regulate with the child from a dysregulated to regulated state.
So, in order to help young people calm down and regulate - you have to first start with
yourself. I wanted to give you my guide for the 9 ways I discuss helping parents regulate
themselves and co-regulate with their child.
Regulation For Grownups
Neuroscience shows that slow deep breaths in and out is the most effective
way to calm your body. Breathing slows your heart rate and actually gives
signals to your brain that your environment is safe - taking you out of the
flight/fight response of anxiety and anger. The key is to breathe out for twice
as long as you breathe in - think in for 4 and out for 8. This isn’t a magic
formula, so you can shorten or lengthen it as is comfortable for you. AND
when we are regulating our breathing, it can actually synch up and
regulate the breathing of your dysregulated child.
The messages you say to yourself are incredibly powerful in either calming
your nervous system or revving it up. Take an assessment of what messages
you are saying to yourself as your child is becoming dysregulated. Some
parents might think things like “not this again” or “can’t we have just ONE
good night?”. Thoughts like these (although understandable) lead to more
dysregulation for the grownups. Sometimes it is helpful to be intentional
about thoughts that your number one job is to regulate your child and
thoughts that decrease time pressure or others’ expectations.
Grounding skills help us stay in the here and now and allow us to be present
and regulate through the distress of the outbursts or the tantrum. Some of
my favorite ways to ground are identifying and naming (in your head) 5
things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, and
one thing you taste. It can also be as simple as holding a grounding object
like a stone or a rock, intentionally noticing the air going in through your
nose and out through your mouth, or intentionally noticing the pressure of
the contact of your feet with the ground.
Understand The Brain and Nervous System
There are two very important parts of the brain to consider when thinking
about meltdowns, tantrums, and dysregulation. The first part is called the
prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is in charge of reasoning, decision
making, problem solving and logic. The second part is the limbic
system. This is the part of the brain that is focused on survival. It holds the
parts of the brain that scan for safety and danger (amygdala) and store
historical and contextual information about a situation (hippocampus).
When these lower brain regions of the limbic system sense danger the
autonomic nervous system kicks into gear triggering the fight or flight
response. For children danger doesn’t always mean life threatening
situations. Their amygdala might see something that is unfair, having to shut
the TV off, or getting beat in a game as just as dangerous as if there was a
tiger in the room.
When the fight and flight responses are triggered amazing things happen in
the body for survival, but actually aren’t so great for everyday life. This
includes changes in hearing that tune into high pitch noises (distress calls)
and low noises (predator noises). When this happens children can tune out
human voice just because of these changes in hearing.
Children also lose access to the prefrontal cortex - that part of the brain that
helps with problem solving, decision making, and weighing pros and
cons. The brain is now focused on making split second decisions that are
focused on survival and not necessarily the rules or society or your
For these reasons if you are getting clues that your child is in their limbic
system and fight or flight response the only focus should be regulation. They
don’t have access to the parts of the brain where teaching or learning can
happen, they can weigh pros and cons, or they can engage in problem
solving or self reflection. And parenting techniques like attempting to
facilitate problem solving or giving lectures will likely be seen as a threat, will
not be comprehended, and will not be effective.
Giving Nonverbal Cues of Safety
70-93% of all of what we communicate with others is nonverbal. There are
multiple things we can do with our bodies to make sure we are non-verbally
communicating safety to children when they are dysregulated. This
includes gentle eye contact with a soft gaze (as opposed to wide open
eyes), getting below eye level, tilts of the head, and using facial expressions
including gentle smiles.
This is because when we are in fight or flight mode and ready to fight or run
away, we have wide eyes to take in more of our environment for safety, we
are in a rigid posture ready to mobilize (usually with a head and neck
posture that is alert), and our affect is flat. By being intentional about how
we can be projecting either cues of safety or danger with our nonverbals
we can give these safe nonverbal cues to children, which will help them to
feel safe and begin to regulate.
Also making sure that your movements are slow and intentional can give off
cues of safety. When a child’s brain is dysregulated it is working very hard to
continue to assess for cues of safety and danger so all movements need to
Assess Openness to Physical Touch
Some children are the kind of children who will curl up on your lap and want
a giant hug or to be rocked. For other children, or at other times, physical
touch (even safe and gentle) will be seen as a threat. Attempting to soothe
a child with touch can either be regulating and soothing or dysregulating
and dangerous. Notice and assess how a child responds to physical touch
and respect their boundaries.
Intentional Verbal Interaction
When speaking, be intentional on the tone, pace, and pitch of
language. We can do this by using a skill called vocal prosody. We learned
above that our inner ear muscles tune out mid-tones when dysregulated,
which are generally the tones associated with human voices. For this
reason, make sure to vary your pitch with high and low tones (sometimes
called a “kindergarten teacher voice”). Make sure you are using
verbalizations that are slow, clear, and as concise as possible (as opposed
to run-on sentences and lectures).
Give Empathy and Validation
No matter if you agree or disagree with what has triggered dysregulation for
a child, they are still in incredible amounts of pain and dysregulation. And
for some kids? What they are going through in the moment of dysregulation
may be one of the hardest things in their young life. When we can have
empathy and validate pain for children, and be with them, healing and
regulation almost always occur. Also remember – validation and empathy
does not mean agreement!
Since our nervous systems “talk” to one another and gain information from
one another we are always assessing if a situation is dangerous or
safe. Incongruence (or when what you say and how you act doesn’t
match up) is something that is pretty threatening for our nervous systems. If
you are saying that you can understand how hard it is to have to turn off the
TV but have a sarcastic, disinterested, or disconnected tone - kids are going
to sense that and you become unsafe. In short, say what you mean and mean what you say.
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I specialize in working with children, adolescents, and families. I am one of the few Certified Play Therapists in Toronto; am a Certified Trauma Assessor; and am an EMDR Therapist.