This has come up a lot in the last few months- with schools, with parents, with daycares…anyone who has to discipline little kids. It’s gotten to the point where I have a canker sore on the back of my tongue from biting it whenever this comes up so it’s time to talk about it.
The word “but.” Not as in your ass…as in, “okay, but what about this?”
Specifically in the context of dysregulation.
I keep hearing over and over some variation of “I know they’re dysregulated, BUT I know they’re stressed, BUT I know they’re in the red brain, BUT.”
As you likely know, is used to contrast different pieces of information. It was sunny but windy.
It was funny but in bad taste. It’s a qualifier.
I have often said when I’m discussing dysregulation with parents, they’ll say “I know they’re dysregulated, but I can’t let them hit.”
Or “I know they were in red brain, but screaming is unacceptable.”
Or my personal favorite “I know they were tired but running away and crying wasn’t going to fix it.”
When 90% of the time, parents use the word “but” in relation to what I call the “big 4” stressors.
These are things that there’s no way over, no way under, no way around, you gotta go through.
They’re sleep, food, elimination, and illness. They’re base stressors.
Things that cannot be solved in any way other than providing the solution, and that our brain perceives as life-threatening danger.
The message here is “I know they were in a physiological state they were unable to handle but I still expected them to handle it. I still expected them to behave as though they were not dysregulated. I expected them to be able to regulate, even though they were experiencing a stressor that they had no control over and I wasn’t helping to mitigate.”
In fact, generally, the expectation is actually not only that they handle the existing stressors, but that they also handle additional stressors in the meantime.
They’re hungry, but they need to hold it together for a 30-minute ride home.
They’re tired, but they still need to behave at the party.
They need to pee or poop, but they need to hold it together till we get home and they can use the washroom.
This is not a developmentally appropriate expectation for young children.
I know these situations arise much more frequently during the holidays and I get it sometimes your child’s regulation is not your top priority.
Life happens. It’s not about avoiding life and holding your kids’ schedule above everything else.
I’m not saying you have to leave the Christmas party, or not go all together, because you know it’s going to run late or it’s during your child’s nap.
I’m not saying you can’t go to the parade because there won’t be bathrooms immediately available. I am saying that you need to anticipate that your child’s ability to regulate is going to start disappearing about an hour before their typical bedtime and your expectations for their behavior have to shift at that point in time.
If you go to the parade you need to plan ahead and have them pee beforehand and not load them down with liquids, and also know where the public facilities are.
You have to expect that they won’t be on their best behavior and either make a plan to regulate them or accept that your kiddo is just going to be a mess until you can fill the need. It’s totally okay and I encourage you to put your own needs above your child’s regulation sometimes.
But should be a conscious choice, and your child should not be punished for your lack of planning or the unexpected circumstances or you prioritizing your own regulation.
Even when you make a plan, it won’t always be perfect.
Sometimes the tank empties faster than you could have anticipated or for reasons you can’t see and there’s just no avoiding it.
It happens to everyone!
Sometimes they’ve got an illness coming on and what seems like a totally normal park date turns sour and it’s not till 2 days later they show symptoms and everything falls into place.
Sometimes your father-in-law hurts himself as you’re planning to wrap up your visit and you end up having to stay far later than anticipated and your kids don’t get to bed on time.
Sometimes you’re stuck in traffic and suddenly your child starts insisting they need to poop right now!
You can’t anticipate every stressor.
I’m not expecting you to it’s unrealistic. In those scenarios, there’s no way you’re going to regulate them other than solving the problem. The food, the sleep, the elimination, the illness. In those scenarios, it’s about mitigating the damage, not getting them regulated, and managing as best you can until the base stressor can be solved.
I’ve had a similar scenario where we were at a Christmas party and it ran late, dinner was almost 3 hours later than I was told it would be. My kids were hungry and tired and the snacks had run out long before. It wasn’t even that important! I could have left at any time but I was enjoying myself and my kids were holding it together so I had another glass of wine knowing full well I was going to get a bit later that night.
I did this twice, but that was my fault. There was nothing I could do to avoid that- other than what I didn’t do, which looked at the clock and say “well we’ve got to go put these kids to bed so thanks for the invite but unfortunately we won’t be able to stay for the meal.”
The kid just needed his bed, and I had let him get overtired for no reason other than my mental health is more important than his regulation but he didn’t do anything wrong. I’d done that to him and other than getting bit it was fine!
He had a good sleep, he was happy as a clam in the morning. It was a temporary and tolerable stressor.
It would not have been fair, however, to discipline him for biting in that instance because he didn’t have control of his behavior due to circumstances I created.
The other scenario “but” often comes up is “but my niece, neighbor’s kid, other kids in their class could handle it.”
You have no idea what is happening behind closed doors with other people’s kids. Their kids might keep it together until they’re home and then meltdown. They might get up far later than your kids or still nap and be within their wake window. They may be scared to express their emotions because their parents use corporal punishment or gaslighting at home and what you perceive as calm and compliant is actually freeze mode.
Please don’t hold the small window you get into someone else’s life against the whole spectrum of yours.
You cannot calmly handle your child’s dysregulation when you’re thinking “Amy’s kid is fine why aren’t you?”
Comparison is the thief of calm.
The moment we start to compare our experience to our perception of someone else’s we become dysregulated because we instantly feel attacked. When we feel attacked our brain will make us do just about anything to feel safe again.
In this instance, it’s your child’s behavior that’s the perceived danger and that’s generally when we behave in ways we otherwise wouldn’t like yelling, shaming, making threats, etc. that we’ll really regret in the morning.
When those base stressors: sleep, illness, food, or elimination are involved there’s no way to teach out of those.
Nothing’s going to solve those problems other than resolving the base need. No amount of Lego or running or deep breathing. Kids do well if they can. They did their best, and so did you. That’s all anyone can ask of you in those scenarios.
There is nobody in this world who never experiences dysregulation and who has calm, compliant kids all the time. Get that out of your head because it’s not reality. We just want these instances of unsolvable dysregulation to be few and far between.
The occasions coming up we know those are going to be stressful situations. There’s going to be strange people, they’ll be out of routine, there’s excitement around presents and food and music and dancing.
The best thing to do as parents is to try and make a plan to mitigate those stressors ahead of time.
Make arrangements for sitters, bringing some typically regulating activities so that they get breaks throughout the gathering.
Communicate with hosts ahead of time about your time restrictions.
Bring a playpen or a cot and ask to put your child down for a nap.
Bring a tablet for the ride home.
One of my favorites is to bring my kids’ PJs and toothbrushes and after dinner, we ask if we can quickly shower them, and then we change them into their PJs and set them up with a tablet or reading books with a willing relative so that even if we’re leaving late and they fall asleep in the car, we can just plop them in bed when we get home. And it signals to the entire party that hey- it’s time to wind things down.
How it actually looks in practice can be totally custom to your family and traditions and how your gatherings typically function. You just want to make those plans ahead of time as much as possible.
We want to as much as possible stay out of reaction mode.
When you’re in the moment, and you notice that you’re heading towards disaster you generally don’t have all your tools available to you. It’s kind of too late.
You have time to prep them for the holiday festivities and mitigate the stress proactively and you have the time to make a plan B for if they still get stressed and how to balance everyone’s needs. Use that time wisely.
Prepare your kids ahead of time and make a plan, rather than just hoping everything will work out.
There’s a saying: failing to plan is planning to fail, and that really applies here.
Using social stories and visuals can also really help in these scenarios in ParentAbility we have a full section of social stories that just deal with various holidays and traditions and events so that parents can easily prepare their kids for what will happen at these get-togethers.
Remember: predictability and consistency is what make kids feel safe.
Even if they’re going into a situation they’ve never been in before or haven’t been in for two years due to a pandemic using stories and visuals can really help to prepare them for what the expectations are, what the flow of the party will be, and reduce that energy output from trying to figure out what’s going on and what the rules are.
So all that to say: prepare as best you can, try to anticipate the stress, and accept that even then it might all go to hell.
And if it does, that’s not a reflection of you, your parenting, or your child’s typical behavior.
It’s okay! Tomorrow is a new day. It’s not the end of the world.
As always, if you need help brainstorming what that preparation might look like for your event or how to prepare your kids come and let’s chat about it in the Parenting Posse. We’ve got almost 10 thousand parents also trying to figure it out too! So we might as well all brainstorm and figure it out together.