Parenting a Young Person with Emotional Dysregulation: What You Need to Know


What Is Emotional Dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation is a mental health condition that causes people to feel intense emotions more frequently and for longer periods of time compared to the average. People who struggle with emotional dysregulation may feel negative emotions such as anger, sadness, frustration, or irritability more intensely than what may be expected from the triggering situation.

People experiencing emotional dysregulation find it difficult to manage their own emotions. This causes problems recognising and accepting how they feel, causing them to become confused and bring up feelings of guilt. They may also find it difficult to calm down after experiencing emotional distress.

Signs of Emotional Dysregulation

There are numerous signs that highlight emotional dysregulation. People with the disorder display these symptoms as a way of coping with their overwhelming emotional response.

In adults, these can include:

  • Emotional reactivity
  • Mood swings
  • Heightened stress
  • Extreme perfectionism
  • Highly conflicting interpersonal relationships
  • Impulsivity
  • Self-damaging behaviours
  • High-risk sexual behaviours
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Other mental health conditions
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts

The condition presents a little differently in children, with signs including:

  • Crying
  • Temper tantrums
  • Refusing to talk
  • Refusing to make eye contact

What Causes Emotional Dysregulation?

Problems with emotional regulation are most likely caused by issues in the emotional braking mechanism in the brain. When there is a reduction in neurotransmitters that control this behaviour, individuals are left with an ongoing fight-or-flight response to everyday issues. Here, a heightened level of stress causes the prefrontal cortex to shut down and produces an inappropriate emotional response.

There are a number of risk factors that can influence the likelihood of developing this mental disorder. These include:

  • Child neglect
  • Childhood maltreatment, leading to early childhood trauma
  • Chronic invalidation
  • A traumatic brain injury
  • Brain infection
  • Suffering from another mental health disorder
  • Genetic predisposition

Who Is at Risk for Emotional Dysregulation?

People commonly think that children learn to manage their emotions through childhood and learn how to regulate them by adulthood; however, this is not always the case. Emotional dysregulation can impact people at any age, with adolescents being most at risk. This is because they are going through many changes during this developmental period, as well as starting to experience increased social and school-related stress.

With a more intense experience of rumination, emotions and a more frequent environmental invalidation, women are also more at risk for developing an emotional dysregulation disorder than men.

No matter what age or gender, an individual not being able to regulate emotions can hugely interfere with their quality of life. The condition can cause issues within interpersonal relationships, and at work or school.

What Disorders Are Related to Emotional Dysregulation?

There are numerous psychiatric disorders related to emotional dysregulation, including:

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Frontal lobe disorders
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Foetal alcohol Syndrome
  • Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)

Parenting a Child With Emotional Dysregulation

It can be difficult to spot emotional dysregulation in children and teens due to this period already being an emotionally trying time. Supporting your child through this illness can be extremely challenging; however, there are many ways you can help them to develop better control when their emotional reactivity and mood swings appear to be something more serious.

Seek Professional Help

There are numerous tried and tested methods for treating the condition that yields positive results.

Teach Them Mindfulness

This will look different from person to person, whether that be through meditation, exercise, breathing, gardening or arts and crafts. Helping them find an outlet which works for them can do wonders.

Use Fewer Words

People who have emotion dysregulation issues can sometimes feel overwhelmed by their feelings. Mindfully letting your child know they are there for them but not talking too much can be a big help. Some short, supportive sentences include:

  • I hear you
  • I’m right here
  • Let it all out

Label Emotions

Children with significant emotional dysregulation can become confused, frustrated and guilty when they can’t identify their emotions. Therefore, it is vital to help them process what they are feeling. This practice allows children to understand the qualities of emotions more deeply, which, in turn, allows them to recognise what they are feeling more easily going forward.

Model Healthy Regulation

Children are very receptive to people around them; therefore, it is important to teach them how to react in a healthy way. This includes sharing feelings, reacting calmly and repairing relationships after wrongdoing.

Treatment for Emotional Dysregulation

As emotional dysregulation can result in issues such as self-harm, excessive substance use and suicidal ideation, professionals should be engaged as soon as possible to help teach emotion regulation skills. Thankfully, there is a range of medically reviewed approaches that can help young people learn to better control their emotional responses.

Medications used to treat ADHD or depression may be prescribed by a doctor to help with emotional dysregulation. There are also various psychotherapeutic techniques that are effective, including dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Practising mindfulness and following a balanced diet can also be very helpful when trying to regulate difficult emotions.

Can Emotional Dysregulation be Cured?

Emotional dysregulation treatment can be extremely successful. A medically reviewed study found that 88% of people dealing with borderline personality disorder did not meet the criteria for the disorder ten years down the line.

Contact Us

The Wave Clinic is a rehabilitation centre that specialises in treating a range of mental health disorders in teenagers and young adults. As the root cause of emotional dysregulation is complicated – whether it stems from a traumatic brain injury, traumatic events or due to borderline personality disorder – our staff take a whole-person approach to healing.

Our clinic is specially equipped to meet the needs of young people to encourage positive growth and recovery. The Wave approaches each person who walks through our doors with compassion and understanding, knowing how difficult it is to face a mental health condition.

For more information about our treatment programs and how we can help your child learn better emotional regulation, please don’t hesitate to contact us today.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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