Understanding dysregulation: A parent's guide

Recognizing the signs of dysregulation can help you respond more effectively and be the anchor your child needs.

As parents, watching your Autistic or ADHD child with frustration and dysregulation can be heart-wrenching. You want to help, to soothe, to calm - and yet, despite your best efforts, nothing works. It's like they're caught in a storm you can't quiet.

The nature of the storm.

It’s important to understand that, when children become highly agitated, they cannot access any tools or strategies for regulating on their own. The reaction isn’t a conscious choice. It’s a manifestation of overwhelm that they cannot control - at least not yet. This means the primary responsibility for maintaining a regulated state falls on the adults in their lives who will show up no matter what.

Presence over problem solving.

When your child is using harsh language or yelling that you’re “the worst” parent, your instinct might be to defend yourself. Unfortunately, when your brain switches to defense mode, frustrations escalate because connection is missing. What’s needed most in that moment are not solutions - those are easy. The challenge is remaining present and regulated with the following underlying offer: I am here for you and our relationship will not falter.

Practical steps to take:

Stay physically present: Show your child that you are with them through your body language, facial expressions, and non-verbal communicative gestures (like a nod). Make sure you're signaling safety, not defense or anxiety.

Listen and acknowledge: When there is a break in their outburst, let them know you hear them by saying, "I hear everything you’re saying." This acknowledgment can be incredibly powerful.

Offer reassurance: Follow up with your offer, "I’m here to give you what you need," which provides them with a sense of security. It also lets your child know that, as the parent, you are still in your role of providing basic needs (safety and security).

Language you can use.

When your child is in a state of dysregulation and demands something like a phone or game as a condition for “calming down,” interpret it as an expression of an unmet need rather than a manipulation.

These responses show that you understand their distress while also staying with them through the discomfort. You’re further avoiding explanations that will cause power struggles and increasing agitation. What you can offer is one option at a time that you know is particularly soothing. An important piece to note here is that your child can continue to reject all of your suggestions - it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting you. Here’s how you can frame your suggestion:

“I’m thinking your stuffie could help.” OR “I’m thinking turning down the lights could help.”
*you’re adjusting the immediate environment*

“I’m going to bring my idea with me.”
*you’re telling them that you’ll be right back also giving yourself time to regain composure*
*make sure that you come back with a stuffie, or 2 water bottles so you are modeling with your actions rather than your words*

“I’ll move back to give your body space.”
*instead of - I won’t let you hit me*

After the storm.

Once everyone is regulated, you can slowly start to relate to your child’s emotional state. Remember that, on the outside, the crisis has passed. On the inside, the nervous system has not yet regained its neutral state. Depending on your child’s language skills, you can reflect on the experience with, “I wonder what that was like for you.” Posing a statement helps to initiate the process of self-awareness. You’re also aligning yourself with your child and opening up an intimate conversation. Depending on your child’s response, you will mirror it back to them with, “It sounds like for you it was…[scary, hard, sad].” Give them a moment to take the reflection in and follow it up with the same word/phrase for you, “It was…[scary, hard, sad] for me too.” WOW! Now your child knows you really get it.

All roads lead to regulation.

Navigating your child's emotional challenges isn't about fixing their struggles for them. It’s about supporting them through their toughest moments. A parent asked recently how they could tell what’s dysregulation and what’s “bad behavior.” My response was, “let go of the notion that it’s bad behavior and always come back to regulation.”

Final thoughts.

I want to leave you with a quote from Dr. Ross Greene’s The Explosive Child, “Solving problems is much easier if a person has the ability to think through solutions.”

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