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  • Writer's pictureKay Reeve

What is Emotional Dysregulation?

Updated: Apr 5

Emotional Dysregulation is a mood disorder that usually accompanies mental health disorders. A child or teen with Emotional Dysregulation senses every day emotions as if through a massive magnifying glass. What my seem small to you, may seem completely overwhelming to them.

They do not have the ability to recognise their emotions going out of control, and have extreme reactions as a result. We know that adrenaline and cortisol play a major part in our moods, but when their mood hormones 'flood' them and they don't have the emotional tools to deal with it - they have melt downs and outburst beyond belief.

Can Emotional Dysregulation be worse for Neurodivergent Teenagers?

Emotional dysregulation, as well as being exaggerated by depression, can also exaggerated by neurodivergent challenges such as...

  • ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

  • ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder

  • ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder

  • BPAD - Bi-Polar Affective Disorder

  • Dyscalculia - difficulty with numbers

  • Dyspraxia or DCD - Developmental coordination disorder

  • Dyslexia - difficulty with reading or writing

  • Schizophrenia - with delusions, hallucinations, disorganised thoughts

  • and many more

Why can't they manage their own emotions?

A mood disorder is the inability to manage one's own emotions. It is not being spoilt, overly dramatic, or pampered. In a two year old we call it terrible-two's, when they are learning that life has barriers - usually the word 'No'. But for many children, this sensation of exaggerated emotions and reactions can continue into adulthood when dealing with other disorders that bring about more complex and unseen barriers.

Depression is usually secondary as a result of neurodiversity and the overwhelm of dealing with the additional challenges that comes with it. For children where depression is the primary source of emotional dysregulation, there is usually a root cause to that too. Family trauma, school bullying, abuse, drugs, or other negative influences on their life.

Can Emotional dysregulation can be overlooked by schools and doctors?

My own son had emotional dysregulation till around 20 years old, accompanied by ASD, school bullying and had regular meltdowns or outbursts of anger and aggression. Every time this happened, it was as traumatic for him as for the people around him.

This was not his fault, and despite every effort to get help, we had hit brick walls in the education system, and could not make any progress through the GP route when a psychologist saw him on one of his better days - and dismissed him from the system - without listening to me, his mum.

This left me dealing with his emotional dysregulation alone for the next FIVE years. If only I had known then what I know now. Yes it can be overlooked, but awareness has improved a lot in the last 20 years and there are ways to help your teenager.

I know there are many other parents out there in the same boat - feeling like they are up the Creake without a paddle.

How can I help my teenager improve their emotional control?

Well here's the thing - you're not alone - and it will be ok because I did find a way to help my son. I have also created a way to share that knowledge with you. I realise that my son was a visual learner. He was struggling with 'concepts' such as 'time' and 'money' so how was I supposed to teach him to manage his own emotions when they're invisible?

I was just 20 seconds from a phone call, seriously ready to admit him one night, when as a last ditch attempt, we sat down for a drink and a chat - before choosing NOT to make that call.

I started with just four colours to represent the core emotions, and started to develop a way to help him 'see' what his emotional cycle was, and to understand that we change between emotions because something changed. How to spot changes in his emotions. How to recognise the feelings that it created and build strategies for halting those meltdowns and outbursts.

the emotional cycle by Kay Reeve, author of Brain Unchained - parenting teens book
The Emotional Cycle - Visual Learning for Emotions
The Emotional Cycle Diagram

He quickly understood the model and the colours for Happy, Sad, Angry and Depressed. He learned how he only changed between emotions because 'something' changed. What was it? That became the beginning of every conversation from that point as he learned to adapt to this new way of thinking.

As he grew more emotionally aware, so my strategy grew too. It took me two years to develop it fully, then I spent the following two years trying every way possible to break the strategy, before even thinking about sharing it.

In 2017 I gave a TEDx Talk 'Tackling Teenage Depression' about the importance of parents 'mentoring' their own teenagers.

I had not heard the term 'emotional dysregulation' till recently, but I knew immediately what it looked like, and how it feels as a parent, dealing with it in your own home. I had not used the term when writing my book, but that's ok. The message is exactly the same, and the outcome was incredible in how my son changed.

I have shown this model to many people since, watched them 'reel internally' as the penny dropped and they quickly grasped the concept. They called it genius, unique, and absolutely needed. I had never aspired to become an author, till I realised the power of what I had created - to help my own son.

My book was not written about our story. It was written as a result of our story - to help you.

brain unchained, parenting teens book, by Kay Reeve
Brain Unchained - Parenting Teens Book

In 2020 I launched my book Brain Unchained Emotional Awareness for Teenagers and Young Adults.

It has parent toolbox tips in every section, making it the perfect parenting book to help you mentor your own child through emotional dysregulation.


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