A Walk Through Dysregulation, Together

My son was feeling a little bit “out of whack” (that’s usually the least-jargony way I can describe the word “dysregulated”). He was picking at everyone in the family, emotionally, verbally.

He pushed his sister, who was watching a show, far enough for her to lash out at him physically, to hit him and push him away, and then he hit her back, and then I was there to physically remove him from the situation and put myself between the two of them. He grabbed a bag of animal crackers off the counter and began eating them. I didn’t want him to do that but I prioritized the level of concern in my head and let it go for now.

He was mad I wouldn’t let him go back and sit on the couch beside his sister. He protested that he couldn’t see the TV and that it wasn’t fair. While I had no doubt that he believed what he was saying, I also knew that his brain was making up a “reasonable” reason for wanting to go sit on the couch, but then once he was there he would start pestering his sister again. Since I could recognize the pattern from many past experiences, I headed it off. I said “I know it’s ‘not fair’. The couch is taken right now, but you could sit on the comfy chair or stand over here with me.”

He yelled, “NO,” which told me that he was at a point where verbalizing wasn’t accessible anymore and so I knew for sure talking wouldn’t be helpful.

Having known him for a long time and recognizing this pattern, I could also tell that the very presence of the TV was not helping us. He was being all wound up in his emotions and then getting momentarily distracted by the show. That distracted his brain but didn’t let him discharge any of the emotions he was feeling, so when he became re-aware of his body, he was still all wound up and angry. Having known my son specifically and knowing what works for him, I knew we needed to move away from the TV to be able to get through this. I said, “Let’s go upstairs for a little while.”

He protested, so I picked him up and carried him upstairs. He was mad about it. I could have gotten my daughter to leave the room instead and then circled back to help my son, if I needed to do that. But our pattern after school has been for my son to play video games in the office and for my daughter to watch a show in the living room, so in this scenario he had already invaded her space and her pattern of decompressing. That’s why I decided to remove him in this particular scenario.

I carried him upstairs and started to sit down with him in his room, as I have many times in the course of our life. This time he yelled at me, “Get out of my room! Leave me alone!”

This is a first for him. My daughter, on the other hand, consistently prefers to be left alone or given some space when she is upset. If she trips and falls and someone offers consolation too quickly, she will yell, “don’t talk to me!!! Don’t look at me!!!” She needs time to process the quick flare-up of overwhelming feeling before she can accept comfort or co-regulation. So when my daughter is mad and wants space, I usually echo: “I can go out of your room,” and pause, reading her words, body language, and face to make sure she does want me to go out or (on rare occasion) will instead protest “no, don’t leave,” in which case I stay.

But my son rarely, if ever, asks me to leave. So the first time he did, I simply stayed sitting, silent and steady. If he needed to say angry words, that was okay. He often says non-literal words. I don’t want him to believe that his feelings are too big for me to sit with him, to help him hold.

He repeated himself. “Go away from me! Get out of my room!”

I did what I do with my daughter and echoed, “I can go out of your room if you want.”

“Go away then!!!” he yelled, tears running down his face.

I said, “Ok buddy. I will sit in the hall,” and got up and moved out the door, sitting in the hall right outside his room.

He cried and sniffled for a few minutes, working through his own internal thoughts and feelings, whether he was going to be able to go through the process of self-regulation all by himself. Instead, the process hit a bump. He was too mad. He didn’t know what to do with all the mad. He decided to direct it at me again. “Go away out there!” he yelled. “Just go downstairs and go away from me!”

He couldn’t see me. I was sitting silently in the hallway, checking in with my own self about how I was doing, how I was breathing. I continued to sit silently, unsure if he just needed to yell angry words or if he was going to move his body to come see if I had gone. He usually has quite a lot of inertia — if he’s sitting then he’ll stay sitting, but if he’s moving then he’ll stay moving — so I knew that since he was sitting, if he got up to come open the door, he would probably need help to stop whatever came next.

“Go AWAY out there,” he said again. Then he got up and came and opened the door, ready to rage at me.

I opened my arms. Here’s a hug if you want it.

His face crumpled and he crawled, sobbing, into my arms. Mad feels better than sad if you’re feeling unsafe to be vulnerable, but if you can get over the hurdle of vulnerably coming to someone you love, sad might be a truer expression of whatever you’re feeling. He sobbed and sobbed and I held him in my lap.

Finally he sat up and said, “I want to play Wild Girls.”

It’s a script from Bluey that he uses generally to mean sort of, “I want to play something collaboratively, could be anything, we’ve just been apart and now I want us to play together.”

So I answered, “okay! How do we play?” Because then he can tell me what he specifically wants to do. He told me he wanted to build a house out of his Duplo blocks so we started building a house together. I made him laugh a couple of times as I put a dinosaur on the roof and he told the dinosaur it wasn’t safe to go on roofs. Then he thought maybe it was safe with a ladder so we built a ladder as well.

I didn’t need to lecture him or bring up what had happened. Either he would bring it up, or he would now have moved through the emotions and was feeling okay now. I know that he already knows that hitting people or yelling at people is “not okay”, which is why he doesn’t just go around doing it for fun but when his body is in a panic and fighting for survival. So I didn’t need to tell him.

We were 98% of the way done with the house when he said, “I want to try again.”

I said “oh? What do you want to try?”

He said “I want to try again be nice to my family.”

I said “oh, okay. We can try that.”

He said “I want to finish my house first,” and we finished the last like two blocks. And then I went downstairs with him.

Funnily enough – I offered him the animal cracker that he had dropped when everything melted down. He looked at it and said “I don’t like those.” Maybe he meant he didn’t want it right that second, or maybe he truly meant he didn’t like those at all. Either way, it told me that him grabbing stuff and eating it mid-meltdown was an attempt to self-regulate, an attempt to find security, and it reinforced for me that nitpicking at what he ate or didn’t eat in that moment wouldn’t have been helpful.

We ate dinner and got ready for bed, an uneventful evening. Emotions are like a tunnel you have to go all the way through to get to the other side, and we got all the way through them together, and on the other side was safety and security and family.