Is it Disrespect or Dysregulation?
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
TL:DR - It’s dysregulation and you can help. Here’s the video version.
Let’s talk about disrespect.
I’m pretty certain that a huge percentage of you feel triggered by disrespect. Right? I think that's fairly universal, at least in the U.S. What’s interesting is that “disrespect” is an opinion. And even that sentence is triggering for some. Your brain hears a kid talk back and shouts internally, “No! That's disrespectful. The end!” But if I can look at something and not feel disrespected, and you can look at something and feel disrespected, then those are our opinions. It's not an objective fact. Which means we can change our perspective to change our opinions → which changes our triggers → which modifies our behaviors → which leads to healthier parenting.
One of the ways I have increased my “disrespect tolerance” is by translating behavior, words, outbursts, etc, into their root causes. If a child is saying something “mean” to me, I can label it as mean or I can say, “Ooh, they're dysregulated. I wonder what they need? I wonder what need isn't being met?” And that curiosity gets rid of the feeling that I'm being disrespected. Because I'm now looking at it like a puzzle. Instead of cause and effect: they disrespected me = now I need to be angry. I think, “Huh? That's not normal for you; what's going on?” And then I have a puzzle to solve. It uses a different part of the brain. Instead of going into self defense mode, I dive into problem solving mode.
The next part to the shift is understanding child development. The child who prompted this post was four. Four-year-olds, by nature, have to experiment with obnoxious words, loud words, “aggressive words”, and very extreme language, because that's where their brains are at. They're developing their vocabulary. They're developing their ability to communicate their feelings with words instead of just with their physical actions. And part of that is overcompensating. As with most skills, when we work really hard to learn them, we go to extremes first and then we settle back down. We sometimes do that in parenting too. We decide to stop spanking or yelling, only to overcompensate and feel paralyzed and unsure how to hold a boundary because we fear that if our kids are upset, we aren’t being respectful/gentle/positive parents. (By the way, kids crying does not mean you are failing at being respectful parents. That means they're human. Humans cry.) So it shouldn’t surprise us that kids overcompensate on their new skills for a time too. Part of the development for a four-year-old includes exploring the power of words. A two or three-year-old lives on impulse, that’s where their brains are. They can parrot back things they remember us saying, “No I’m not supposed to hit my little brother.” But that has nothing to do with their ability to actually stop that impulse. Between four and five, kids start to make those connections. So they start to experiment with other things such as words. However, a four-year-old doesn't have the articulation and the vocabulary and the self control and moderation of tone to be able to say, “You know, mother, when you said that I felt really uncomfortable and I felt that feeling in my chest and I felt this need to defend myself. And I just really wanted to lash out at you. But I know that you wouldn't like that, so I've chosen not to. But I want to express myself articulately and clearly.” That's obviously not realistic for a four-year-old. (Heck, it’s not common with most adults!) And everyone knows that on some level, but again, just because you know something, doesn't mean you can apply it to every situation without some support. So we know that they can't talk that way, but we're annoyed with how they do talk, which is more like, “You're so mean. You're the worst mummy ever. I'm gonna throw you in the garbage.” Then, because of our unrealistic expectations, that don’t fit their brain development, we feel angry. I’m suggesting we choose to put that aside and choose to see it as developmentally appropriate, if annoying, behavior. Not a threat or insult.
So if you don’t get angry and defensive, what do you do? You have a choice in those moments. You can meet their intensity with your own overpowering intensity to try to smother their anger, and make it worse, or you can think, “Wow, he's dysregulated,” and assume he needs help. Instead of, “He's disrespectful. I’ve got to nip this in the bud,” which isn't going to meet his need to be heard, think, how can I support him right now. One option is to meet them where they are at. You can very temporarily match their energy (not in an overpowering way) to pierce their veil of rage (especially for Early Childhood aged kids) and then quickly lower our energy to a calm neutral. This is done in an effort to express the message, “I get you!” It may be just one word, “WOAH! You’re really mad/disappointed.” By the end of the sentence you’re already back to a normal tone, regulated and calm. And your calm regulation allows them to borrow some for themselves. You become their safe base and anchor and grounding presence. As they are processing their big feelings, you don’t have to join in that. You are modeling what we call “acting like an adult,” or “acting your age,” which means to act regulated. Instead of acting like a four-year-old, by screaming, hitting, punishing, or lashing out in childish behaviors of your own, act like the adult. You want the child to be able to handle their emotions and self regulate which means they need to see you handle your emotions and self regulate or where will they learn those skills?
A lot of parents will try to squash their small person's dysregulation, and they may succeed in getting them to mask, but that is not the same as self-regulation. Masking or hiding their emotions from you leads to them either blowing up later, like at school, at their brother, at the dog, we've seen that trickle down effect before, or burying it inside to where it starts to attack them. That's when you see kids who hurt themselves, who hate themselves, and who have a lot of internal struggle. Of course, we want them to get back to regulated as quickly as they're able; but we have to understand that four-year-olds are not going to be able to just flip a switch and say, “I'm happy now,” because we say so. That's fake. What they need to do is get those feelings out, get their nervous system back on track, and bring back their prefrontal cortex, (the little bit of it that functions because that part will keep growing until they are 25 to 26 years old in a neurotypical brain) but they need our help. They need our calm and our regulation to get to their own. So we have to hold that energetic line, saying inside, I'm not going to dive into the muck with you. You can be as angry as you want. You are safe. I'm choosing to stay regulated. That's my choice. I can control me.
There’s a fear that kids will think oh well that behavior is okay so I can just escalate and get worse and worse and worse. But you know what escalates behavior? Unmet needs, aggression and dysregulation from the parents and caregivers, disrespect from the parent, feeling unheard or unseen, and not feeling safe in your own home. You know what does NOT create escalating behaviors? Co-regulation. Co-regulation teaches the brain and the nervous system how to find self regulation. It takes hundreds of experiences of co-regulating with your child to make their normal physiological expectation: emotions go up and I know how to release them and come back down to calm. Instead of, “I know how to emotionally go up... and then panic... and then go higher... and freak out... and have no idea what to do from there.” We are teaching their brain what to do by practicing with them. Over and over and over again.
Co-regulating can feel like “not doing anything,” and you’re right that you’re not doing things to them, but you are doing something. You are regulating yourself which activates the mirror neurons in their brain to regulate their body. You are actively creating a safe container for the expression of those feelings. That safety tells their body that all of their activation isn’t necessary anymore and they can let it go. But they cannot let it go if they do not feel safe. So it's a very conscious, low-energy, almost unobservable-from-the-outside type of activity. Release the common theory that unless we do something to them, kids will just stay in a dysregulated state. Kids don’t want to be dysregulated. No kid likes that state. Quite frankly, that state sucks. That state requires an immense amount of energy. From a biological perspective, it is better to avoid that state of dysregulation when we can and get out of it quickly when we can’t avoid it. We don't have to do that to them, that is innate. We have to create the environment where they can learn how to get back to equilibrium, which requires the least amount of energy to sustain, so they can just be, and exist, and feel safe. And they learn over time that process of, “I feel super dysregulated...what are my options? What can I do?” And then they use those options for themselves, such as the eight-year-old who goes upstairs to take a breather and calm himself down. Then returns with an apology. Something like,
“I'm sorry, I was yelling at you.”
“Thanks bud. You want to talk about it?”
“No, not really. I was just in a bad mood.”
“Okay, let's move on.”
Have you ever said something when you are in a bad mood? I certainly have. I've lost my cool with my kids. And I come back and say, “I'm sorry I spoke to you that way. It has nothing to do with you really. I was in a really cranky mood.” Almost always. It's because I haven't eaten! Your reason may be because you have old stories. It might be because you haven't slept; it might be because you're in pain. There's all kinds of reasons that we might just be in a bad mood. There's also all kinds of reasons kids might be in a bad mood. And it doesn't really make any sense that as an adult who has a fully formed brain, we can be dysregulated, we can be in a bad mood, we can shout and yell and call names and do all of the “disrespectful” things and still get the benefit of the doubt. But they can't. They need to be perfect or we need to punish them? It just doesn’t add up. Kids cannot be expected to show more self control than their adults.
So next time your child is saying something that’s getting under your skin, ask yourself, “Is this disrespect or dysregulation? If it's dysregulation, help them regulate? If you think it's disrespect, sit on it. My husband is fond of saying, “I can always be mad later.” And I love it because it gives us a healthy Pause before we react. If you really think it's just disrespect and nothing else, sit with that feeling and work a little bit longer to figure out what's underneath. Where does it come from?
If you are still at the very very beginning and you are so triggered like you feel it in your soul that you just want to haul off on this kid. Go away. Be the grown up and go. Say, “I am not a safe person right now.” And walk away. Go sit in your car. Go sit in the pantry. Go get a piece of chocolate, or ice water, or something to suck on like a hard candy. (Dr. John’s are my favorite.) Do something to regulate you. You are teaching them that instead of hurting the person you care about, walk away and deal with your own stuff. That's a very valuable lesson. Can we expect a four-year-olds or even an eight-year-old to apply that successfully all the time? No. Because their brains are not fully developed. How come our parents expected that of us? Because they didn't know. They were parenting how they were parented. The information that we have now on how the brain develops and how the pieces come together. And when they come together. None of that was really prevalent when we were growing up. They didn't have Facebook groups with 1000s of people where somebody could come on and teach these things in 15 minutes. They had: “Well, I know what my parents did,” and a long series of cultural fears and stories that are really scary to challenge. But we can't create change if we don't challenge them, so we must.
If we want a different outcome for our kids, we have to parent differently. If we want to parent differently, we have to challenge those stories and those beliefs and those fears. They do not get to be facts in our story in our brain anymore. Get curious, get curious about your kids behavior, get curious about your behavior. That's how we start to see things differently.
This type of self-challenge comes up every week in Create Your SURE Family calls on Thursday and Saturday, because this is so important and foundational to the work that we're doing here. I highly recommend you join our groups. It is so productive. I absolutely love them. But if you're not going to, I want you to get a piece of paper, put it somewhere relevant in your house, put it on your counter or put it on your desk, whatever. And I want you to write on top. What else could it mean? The next time you feel triggered, write down your trigger. Write down what happened, what they said, what your brain was saying about it. And then ask yourself What else could this mean? A majority of the people struggle to complete this task. It’s hard. It requires knowing what you're thinking, challenging what you're thinking, and thinking of something in a different way. It's not an easy thing. Fortunately, it is one of my biggest strengths - perspective. I can see your perspective and your mom's perspective and your kid's perspective and your husband's perspective. It doesn't mean I personally align with all of them, but I can see all of them. I’ve practiced my whole life so at this point it comes pretty naturally to me. It’s ok if it doesn’t feel natural to you. It's okay if you need support. It's a new skill for the majority of people I talk to. The good news is that we will be teaching this skill to your children as we work together. So they will not have as hard of a time when they're in their 20s and 30s and 40s. But will they struggle with it when they're six? Yes, because they are supposed to. That is where they are developmentally. And that's okay. That doesn’t make them disrespectful. Just growing up and doing the best they can with the current skill set and brain they have!
For those of you who want extra support let’s talk about what would fit for your unique situation on a free call at bit.ly/callsami Speak soon!