No, not that kind of grounding! We don’t do punishments around here. By special request, I am dropping a note to provide some definitions in my own words for those who are wondering. I use the terms dysregulation and grounding, in a variety of forms, to describe some of the important steps in the process of developing self-regulation.
- Self-regulation: the state of being in physiological and psychological balance without external influence. Please note that self-regulation does not mean self-control. Self-regulation develops as a child builds skills to become more able to manage stress in healthy ways. Self-control means arbitrary self-inhibition whether or not the child is handling stressors in a healthy way.
- Dysregulation: an inability to sustain physiological or psychological balance due to unmanageable stressors.
- Meltdown: a vigorous, externalized, emotional eruption.
- Shutdown: self-protective, internalized isolation.
- Grounding: the process of bringing oneself back into self-regulation.
Many of you may already be familiar with the concepts of meltdowns and shutdowns as they apply to neurodivergent children. Autistic kids are at an especially heightened risk of experiencing these very upsetting, very natural responses to living in a world in which they have to work every waking hour to operate within the confines of what neurotypical people consider “normal.” Anecdotally, I’ve found that autistic kids are more able to operate in neurotypical cultures when they have autistic adults guiding them. They’re less likely to meltdown or shutdown, probably because the autistic adults can better predict stressors and teach the kids how to avoid or work through them.
But, it’s not just neurodivergent kids who respond to stress by melting down or shutting down. Neurotypical kids do it too because, well, they are kids. Up to around age 25, we humans are pretty unskilled in the process of understanding ourselves and negotiating appropriate behavior. Meltdowns and shutdowns occur when children reach a point at which they are overloaded and unable to cope. The source could be overstimulation, hunger, exhaustion, or any number of major crises that a child cannot overcome alone.
Learning the signs of dysregulation isn’t an exact science. Caregivers should have a sense of what’s typical for a child in a given situation and, when things start to escalate, that’s when you know it’s time to act. Unfortunately, because of the way many of us view childlike behavior, it can be easy to brush off signs of dysregulation as a child just being obnoxious. However, behavior is always communication. A child may not be able to explain what’s happening, but their behavior can reveal the truth. Understand that dysregulation is never a choice. If you see any of these signs, or any suggestion that something is up with your child, take action.
Possible Signs of Impending Dysregulation
This list is not exhaustive.
- Increasing hyperactivity
- Increasing vocalizations (talking, humming, other sounds, etc.)
- Increasing destructiveness
- Unusually avoidant behavior
- Unexplained mood swings
When a child begins to dysregulate, we adults can help. We can guide our child toward grounding by gently offering techniques that soothe at a time when our kids can no longer reason through to a solution. We become their calm. Be sure to choose interventions you know your child enjoys and ask first. Consent is crucial to ensure your child feels as calm and peaceful as possible.
Possible Grounding Interventions
This list is not exhaustive.
- Vestibular and/or Proprioceptive Exercises
- Long Hugs, with consent
- Exposure to Nature for 20 minutes
It’s easiest to decide what might work best for an individual child if we can figure out what’s wrong to begin with. If my child is just completely overwhelmed and unresponsive to conversation, my go to is always a hug, and then we might move onto other things. If I can see that my child is getting very sleepy, I try to create a calming environment and a place to rest (usually a nap on the couch if it’s during the day). If I can see that my child is starting to physically push people around, I look for ways to introduce heavy work. My response depends on putting together all the other observations I’ve already made leading up to the crisis.
Dysregulation isn’t bad. It’s a natural response that children have no control over. It’s our job as the reasonable adults we are to show our kids how best to cope and get back to a balanced position.