Parenting is a beautiful journey filled with love, joy, and growth. However, it also comes with its fair share of challenges, and one common struggle that parents face is difficulty managing their own emotions
When parents experience emotional dysregulation, it can have a significant impact on their well-being and the overall family dynamic. In this post, we will delve into the world of the dysregulated parent and its consequences. We’ll provide practical strategies to help parents regulate their emotions and create a nurturing environment for their children.
Understanding Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Dysregulation
Dysregulation is a word used to describe the state of a person’s nervous system. It’s not just about emotions. It actually includes other physiological aspects, too!
To better understand why this matters, it’s important to at least know the basics of our human brain and nervous system.
There are two main components when we refer to the nervous system:
- Central Nervous System
- Peripheral Nervous System
There are two parts to the Central Nervous System
- Spinal Cord
Our brain is basically a supercomputer that is responsible for taking in, processing, organizing, and storing all of the information we come In contact with. It controls what we think and feel, how we learn and remember, and the way we move and talk. The spinal cord is basically the cable that connects to our brain and carries all of the signals and messages we need to actually operate our bodies.
There are two parts to the Peripheral Nervous System
- Somatic Nervous System
- Autonomic Nervous System
The somatic nervous system is used for things we do on purpose. When we intentionally move, walk, talk, play a sport, read, etc. The parts of our lives that we control are executed by the peripheral nervous system.
Our Autonomic Nervous System handles the things that happen automatically (you can think ‘autonomic like automatic’), like our breathing, heartbeat, digestion, thoughts, feelings, etc.
There are two parts to the Autonomic Nervous System
- Sympathetic Nervous System
- Parasympathetic Nervous System
You can think of the Sympathetic Nervous System as our Survival Mode. This part of us takes over when we’re in danger (Sympathetic = Survival).
Our Parasympathetic Nervous System is operational when we are safe, we don’t have to be “calm” or “relaxing” but we’re okay, not facing danger (Parasympathetic = Passive).
A dysregulated nervous system is in survival mode.
Essentially, something inside of you is sensing danger (even if you don’t logically realize it or believe you’re in danger). These are processes that happen prior to cognitive realization.
There are several physical things that happen when our bodies sense danger. These are signs of dysregulation:
- Inhibit salivation
- Relax airways
- Increase heartbeat
- Inhibit stomach activity
- Stimulate glucose
- Inhibit intestines
- Boost epinephrine and norepinephrine
- Relax bladder
There are several emotional things that happen when our bodies sense danger. It’s critical to know that this is how our brains work, even if it’s not logical.
- Fear and terror
- Desperation, helplessness, hopelessness
- Racing thoughts and anxiety
- Intrusive thoughts and rumination
- Inability to learn and retain information
- Attachment needs
- Defense against attachment needs
- Shut down and numbness (depression)
- Separation from reality (dissociation)
There are several physical things that happen when our bodies sense safety. Some call this state “rest and digest” because it’s when our bodies are functioning optimally. This is the opposite of dysregulation. We can absorb nutrients, blood flow Is balanced, and we are able to remain relatively calm in most situations.
- Stimulate salivation
- Constrict airways to a baseline level
- Stabilize heartbeat
- Stimulate stomach activity
- Inhibit glucose release\
- Stimulate intestinal activity
- Contract bladder
There are several emotional things that happen when our bodies sense safety. First responders call this “relaxed and ready” because they are able to access all of their training, work without getting overwhelmed by emotion, and see the big picture in an emergency.
- Learning is possible
- Social engagement system is online
- Attachment and connection are important but not urgent
- Zoomed-out view of the situation
- Able to experience empathy
- Recognizing confidence and capabilities
- Increased capacity for reflection and insight
- Capable of feeling our feelings
- Problem-solving is easier
- Can hear other’s point of view without defensiveness
- Connection to the present reality
Dysregulation is not about your morals or values, getting dysregulated is normal, and doesn’t say anything bad about you, it is simply a normal aspect of the human nervous system, and it’s actually what keeps us alive.
As a parent, dysregulation has an impact on more than just you. Your children are experiencing the effects of your dysregulated nervous system because they are dependent on you for their survival, so their brains are pre-programmed to sense whether or not you are projecting safety or projecting danger.
If you have difficulty in managing emotions effectively. It can manifest as frequent mood swings, anger outbursts, or excessive worry. Various factors can contribute to parental dysregulation, including past experiences, stress, and unresolved emotional issues.
Your kids will often trigger your dysregulation because you are responsible for keeping them safe, so when they’re struggling, your nervous system begins to sense danger. When your kids sense that you are dysregulated, they interpret that as danger, and they become dysregulated, and the cycle of escalation begins.
The Consequences of Unresolved Emotional Dysregulation
Unresolved emotional dysregulation can have far-reaching consequences on parent-child relationships and family dynamics. It can lead to emotional instability in children because they are deeply connected to you and fully dependent on your stability to keep them safe, meet their needs for emotional development, and lead them through the world.
When parents are dysregulated, they are sending messages of danger to their children. Children of parents who lack effective emotion regulation strategies may not learn to discern between safety and danger in a healthy way. The world and their parents are unpredictable and dangerous, and that experience will shape their view of themselves and their capabilities.
Parental dysregulation makes it difficult for parents to set healthy boundaries for their child because when the child becomes upset, the parent is unable to remain calm and confident, leading them to give in to a child’s demands during a tantrum, avoid holding the child accountable, and expecting the child to know how they’re supposed to behave despite inconsistent rules and discipline.
Children depend on their parents to learn how to regulate their own nervous system, so unresolved emotion dysregulation can perpetuate a cycle of emotional and physical challenges from generation to generation. This is often referred to as intergenerational trauma.
Here are some examples of how parental dysregulation can impact parents’ ability to effectively support healthy childhood development:
1. Withdrawing emotional support and connection: Emotionally dysregulated parents may struggle to provide children with the emotional stability, consistency, and connection they need. When our sympathetic nervous system (survival mode) is running the show, the parent is defending their own safety, and is unable to emotionally engage and connect with the child. The parent becomes distant and indifferent from their child’s feelings because they are triggered by them.
2. Yelling and berating: Dysregulated parents may resort to verbal abuse in order to get what they want from their kids or express their frustration. Fighting is a defense mechanism, and when a parent is in survival mode, sometimes their nervous system interprets the child as a threat and defends themselves against the child. This can leave children feeling scared, ashamed, and insecure.
3. Overly strict discipline: Dysregulated parents may have difficulty managing their emotions when disciplining their children, leading them to be overly harsh and rigid with punishments. Often parents will vacillate between overly avoidant and permissive to command and control because they are dysregulated and unable to make a calm, confident decision about how to handle a given situation. This leaves children feeling confused and unsupported by their parent’s lack of warmth or understanding.
These parenting behaviors signal danger to the child, often escalating the child’s behavior and ultimately interrupting the child’s healthy mental and physical development.
When a child is impacted by an emotionally dysregulated parent, the child may exhibit confusion, sadness, and fear. The child becomes overwhelmed by the parent’s outbursts of anger or other strong emotions, which creates feelings of insecurity and instability. They will have difficulty regulating their own emotions in response to the chaotic environment created by the parent’s emotional response.
Children internalize their parents’ reactions as something they’ve caused, believing that if they were better kids, their parents wouldn’t be so dysregulated. They may blame themselves when they’re mistreated by others and believe they deserve to be hurt because they are bad or did something wrong. It is difficult for children of emotionally dysregulated parents to build self-esteem because they interpret their parents’ dysregulated responses as their fault.
This has an effect on how they interact with peers and authority figures, as well as difficulty paying attention in school or completing tasks. The child can also become withdrawn or display signs of depression due to feeling helpless in this situation.
An adult who grew up with emotionally dysregulated parents often feels overwhelmed, anxious, hypervigilant, lonely, and disconnected. They may find it difficult to trust others, avoid emotional intimacy, and rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with their feelings. Many adults who grew up with dysregulated parents struggle with never feeling good enough, have low self-worth, and resort to pleasing others to feel validated. This makes it difficult for them to establish relationships or maintain healthy boundaries in their adult relationships because they were not modeled for them during childhood. They may also struggle to take responsibility for their choices or recognize the impact of their behavior on those around them.
How to Regulate Emotions as a Parent
Regulating emotions is key to creating a healthy environment for both parents and children. Here are 5 emotion regulation strategies to help parents begin practicing healthy emotional regulation:
- Don’t Take on Too Much: Learn to set boundaries and prioritize your needs. Saying no when you need to can help preserve your energy and protect your mental health.
- Use Grounding Skills:
- Look for safety cues:
- Live plants or flowers
- Soothing colors
- Feel the ground under your feet
- Look around for things that signal safety
- Hold something in your hands
- Get Present: Remind yourself of who you are and what you’re doing in the moment.
- Say your full nameSay exactly where you areSay the full date and time (Month, Day, Year, Time)
- Visualize yourself In your mind:
- Notice your age, location, and what you’re doing right now
- Notice your age, location, and what you’re doing right now
- Take Mini Breaks: Pause and recharge throughout the day. Step away from your work or responsibilities for a few moments to breathe, stretch, or engage in activities that bring you joy. You can use progressive muscle relaxation, Jaw, Neck, Shoulders, Hands, Core, Legs, Feet
- Check In with Yourself: Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your emotions and thoughts. Acknowledge your feelings without judgment and address any areas that need attention. Engaging in regular journaling and self-reflection allows parents to dive deeper into their emotions, identify triggers, and develop strategies for emotional well-being.
- Seeking Support and Building a Support Network: Seeking support from trusted friends, family, or joining support groups can offer parents a safe space to share their experiences, gain insights, and find solace.
Seeking Professional Help: Emotion Regulation Therapy
If you feel like you are dysregulated more than half the time, or you are unable to handle your life the way you would like to, seeking professional help through emotion regulation therapy is highly recommended.
A trained therapist can help parents navigate through their emotions, develop effective coping strategies, and address underlying issues contributing to emotion dysregulation. If you’re looking for emotion regulation therapy near you, our therapists specialize in working with parental dysregulation and helping you heal so that you can give your child the healthy and supportive environment they deserve.
What can Parents do to Model and Foster Emotion Regulation in Children?
Parents play a critical role in teaching and modeling emotional regulation skills to their children. By demonstrating healthy emotional expression, active listening, and empathy, parents create an environment where children feel safe to express and manage their own emotions. Modeling emotion regulation techniques, like the ones listed above, will give your child a template to learn how to support their own emotional regulation as they develop.
One of the most important aspects of child development is maintaining a healthy connection with their parents. You may start to notice that this is a very different way of looking at things than we’ve been used to over the past few decades. Parents didn’t focus on how children were feeling, they had never heard the word “dysregulation” and there wasn’t much discussion about how important emotional regulation is for child development.
We know more now, and when we know more, we can do things differently. Acknowledge your own mistakes and be willing to repair relationships when you react poorly. Apologizing to your child after hurting their feelings when you were overwhelmed doesn’t make you weak, it makes your relationship stronger and safe.
Emotional dysregulation can be a challenging hurdle for parents, but it is not an insurmountable one. By understanding the causes and consequences of emotion dysregulation, parents can take proactive steps toward regulating their own emotions and creating a nurturing environment for their children.
Through mindfulness, self-reflection, support, and seeking professional help when needed, parents can transform their emotional well-being and positively impact their family dynamics. Remember, emotional regulation is a lifelong journey, and every step taken toward healing and growth is a step toward a brighter future for both parents and children.