Regulation, Dysregulation & Co-Regulation
with the Behavior Revolution
The concept of self-regulation is well-known among parents of kids with ADHD or autism. Especially since our kids often struggle to self-regulate. But there’s a lot more to talk about in the world of regulation. Our autonomic nervous systems drive behavior. And that nervous system is always either in a state of regulation or a state of dysregulation. This is crucial understanding for parents, caregivers, and teachers of neurodivergent kids. When one is regulated, they are calm and connected and feeling good. But when one is dysregulated, they’re feeling out-of-whack and that drives behavior. Join Sarah Wayland and I as we discuss how to recognize if your child is regulated or dysregulated and how that information informs your responses.
Resources in this Episode
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The Behavior Revolution
We’re Penny and Sarah, parenting coaches who help neurodiverse families like yours understand your child’s neurology and behavior, and shift your parenting to help your child thrive — without the frustration of trying to figure it out on your own. We’re also moms of boys with ADHD and/or autism, so we get it. We live it, too.
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Penny Williams 0:03
We're looking at the biology here, right? We're looking at what the body and the brain is sort of signaling to our kids when they're either regulated or just regulated and being able to interpret and decode that, to understand really what's going on for them.
Welcome to The Parenting ADHD podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD a Holic and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.
Welcome back to The Parenting ADHD Podcast. Today, we have another behavior revolution episode for you for the month of May. And we're talking about regulation, regulated dysregulated. CO regulation, we're going to dive into all of those concepts to help you really understand what's going on for your child, when you see challenging behavior or unwanted behavior. And of course, Sarah Wayland is here with me. And we are going to just dive in, I think, Sarah, anything you want to start with in particular?
Sarah Wayland 1:29
No, except that we're gonna be talking about our behavior wheel, which I'm excited to introduce to everybody.
Penny Williams 1:34
Yeah, for sure. And everybody will be able to download that behavior wheel and use it with your kids and your family as well. We'll let you know how to do that at the end of the episode, let's start with talking about regulating versus dysregulated. I think that parents really no regulation, because we see that our kids are not able to self regulate very well, or very often, especially when they're younger. But I don't know that we always think about the concept of being regulated or being dysregulated. And what Sara and I know is that when we're seeing challenging behavior, our kids are dysregulated. In some way, something is sort of out of whack. And that can be a number of different causes. But you know, what we often label as either good behavior or bad behavior is really regulated, when things are calm, connected, and going well, or dysregulated. When things are not calm, not connected and not going well. Right. So common connected, is one state of the nervous system regulated. And then we have these other states that fall in that dysregulated bucket. And maybe we can talk about some examples of what regulated behavior looks like. And dysregulated behavior looks like first.
Sarah Wayland 2:55
Sure. And one of the things I wanted to say is that very often, at least I did this as the parent is somehow I coded dysregulated behavior as intentional disrespect, and things like that until I understood that this is actually a biological response of your body, and it's not under your kids control. And that really changed how I looked at what they were doing that it wasn't about me. It was about how they were feeling. And so much of it is automatic or instinctual. It's not a choice.
Penny Williams 3:31
I'm really, really glad you brought that up, because that's one of the biggest pivots for parents is recognizing that our kids are not acting out of intention or willfulness. Right. And that is so so important in being able to stay calm ourselves, and to not take their behavior personally, that's the thing that I always lean on to help me remember that it's not about me. And it's not personal, he's having a hard time. He's not giving me a hard time. And that really goes to regulated versus dysregulated. You know, he's dysregulated. And so he's having a hard time. Right?
Sarah Wayland 4:11
Exactly. And for my kids, like dysregulated actually look different for the two of them. So my younger son was yelling and disrespectful, and he wouldn't do what I asked him to do. And you know, he'd be very, very emotional and upset, which of course, made me emotional and upset. And it just felt like he was trying to push my buttons and give me a hard time and not doing what I wanted him to do. But my other son, who was I later learned just as dysregulated, if not more. So. Like he just froze. So he would just sit there and it looked like he was refusing to do what I wanted him to do. Or he just had this flat look on his face, which when I was upset was almost more upsetting than if he had looked upset. So he had the sort of flat emotions looked frozen, so like, it looked different in the two kids, the dysregulated behavior looked so different in each of them. And I honestly coded my older son as being a more compliant kid, because he wasn't yelling at me and fighting with me when I asked him to do stuff.
Penny Williams 5:19
And what you're talking about is the two different states of the nervous system under dysregulation. So the one being fight or flight, which would be your younger son, and freeze, which would be your older son. So, so many times parents and other caregivers and teachers as well, you see a quiet kid, and you think things are okay. And maybe some of that's wishful thinking. But I think a lot of it is just not really knowing any different. And when you have the kid who shuts down, they're not giving you any signals, other than that shutdown mode, and not being able to maybe follow through on an instruction or something that needs to be done. And those are the kids I think, that fall through the cracks the most because they seem compliant,
Sarah Wayland 6:07
Or at least not oppositional.
Penny Williams 6:12
And if a kid's not doing their work at school, it's still a problem, whether they're quiet or not, maybe it's not as big of a problem, because they're not disrupting the whole class. But it's still a problem for that kid, right? They're not learning, they're not succeeding. And so, you have to be able to identify when your kid is dysregulated, or when a student is dysregulated. And then what type of dysregulation is kind of going on for them, which is why we created the behavior, we all because we put all of these different signals, these different behaviors that you might be seeing on the surface, on there in kind of those different states of the nervous system. So that it helps you to say, Oh, my kid is in kind of shutdown mode, or, Oh, this is fight or flight. And they're obviously dysregulated, and I think there are certain behaviors that are common, that are easier signals, right to decode. And then there are some that are really tough, the fight or flight kids, I think often, it's easier to decode, like yelling, disrespect, refusing to do what you ask them lazy, unmotivated, sad or flat emotions, actually, that's the shutdown.
And there's also things in fight or flight, like, being a mother hen. This is something that my daughter does when she's anxious about her brother's behavior. She wants to fix that right before it's a problem. And so that's her own anxiety and dysregulation, and that's a signal, that they're not kind of comfortable. I think of it often, I watched the Big Bang Theory. And I'm in the middle of watching it again. And there is the most wonderful episode about an itchy sweater. And in Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is a very, sort of, I don't want to say non compliant, but he's hard to get along with. He has certain ways that everything has to be done. He's very rigid. He's not good socially, right. He seems autistic, although they never say that in the entire nine or 10 seasons. And something was unresolved. And his roommate said don't freak out about this. It was 10 years ago, it's not a big deal. It was a video that had never gotten returned, that they had rented. They found it in a box somewhere. The store wasn't in existence anymore, the owner was deceased. But oh my gosh, he really needed for this thing to have closure. He really needed that movie to go back right.
And his roommate was like, don't freak out about this. It's not that big of a deal. And he was trying to figure out how to explain to him what it felt like to have this unresolved thing. And they had also found this sweater that the roommates on or somebody had knitted for him in college. And they were talking about how totally itchy and intolerable it was to wear. And so he made the analogy that wearing that sweater was like what it was like in his brain when something was unresolved. And so the roommate had wear the sweater with nothing under it until he was able to resolve the video issue, which he never did because he finds that you know, the person is deceased. There's no living relatives done. It goes on and on, and meanwhile, like his whole skin is coming off like it's so bad. He has hives. He's dying in the sweater for days. Oh, right. And to me it just was such a good analogy of how uncomfortable and disorienting that things like this can be for our kid.
Sarah Wayland 9:56
Well and distracting.
Penny Williams 9:58
Right and distracting he wasn't getting anything else done, all I could think about was how much he needed to get this video turned in, so that Sheldon, could calm down about it, right. And he could take the sweater off. And it's, it just was really good visual of, I think what our kids go through when they're dysregulated. And it's not as simple as saying, don't freak out about this, right? Because his brain is going there. He's not choosing to.
Sarah Wayland 10:26
And you know, another thing is, just because it's not a big deal to me, doesn't mean it's not a big deal to my kids. So, we can't use our own judgment about what feels like a big whale.
Penny Williams 10:39
Exactly, exactly. And, we have to be able to recognize, even when our kids can't necessarily tell us what's going on, or how they're feeling, obviously, we want to work on that. And we talk a lot about that in the behavior evolution program, working on interoception science and being able to recognize signals in their own bodies. And then we have to help them with sort of decoding that and figuring out what state is their nervous system in. And when we talk about that, we're talking about polyvagal theory, which we've covered on the podcast several times before the different states of your nervous system, which are basically calm and connected and which is regulated, then we have unpleasant, and that's the fight or flight. And then we have terribly unpleasant, which is the shutdown or freeze.
And so we're looking at the biology here, right? We're looking at what the body and the brain is sort of signaling to our kids, when they're either regulated or just regulated and being able to interpret and decode that, to understand really what's going on for them.
Sarah Wayland 11:50
You know, I just read something this morning, it was like an ad for some class that Steven Porges is teaching. And one of the things they were talking about was the fact that this isn't a choice that you make about how to feel about it. It is an automatic response of your nervous system, to the threat that it perceives. It's not like you're saying, wearing this itchy sweater feels like a life threat to me. So I need to freeze, right? That's not, that's not how it goes. It's just your body automatically shifts into freeze. And you have no control over that. All you can do is say, oh, here we are. But don't blame yourself for it. And I think that this is one of the big mistakes I made as a parent early on, was assuming that this was willful behavior that they could control. Oh, he's out of control. So if he just takes a few deep breaths, then he'll be back. It'll be great. You know, but I also had to address whatever it was, or he had to address whatever it was that was upsetting him.
Penny Williams 12:59
And I feel like this is the most important piece of understanding this is that instinctual automatic, illogical response. Like we have to accept and go forward from that knowledge that our kids are not choosing to lash out to not follow directions to whatever because kids do well, if they can, which we've all learned from Ross screen. So then it becomes our job to figure out one, why can't they do well, in this particular situation at this particular moment? And to how can we help them? And how can we help them help themselves, right, because the goal is always to remove ourselves from the middle of the equation, we want our kids to be able to eventually say, Oh, my body is signaling that I'm really anxious about this situation. And that means that I should try this strategy that sometimes helps me when I'm feeling this way. You know, that's the ideal in game, right.
And so we have to help them learn how to do that themselves by supporting and scaffolding in the middle, in the middle time between when they're young and when they're older enables. So we're not saying that our kids are always going to be dysregulated by these things necessarily, or that they're not going to be able to self regulate, they will learn that what we're talking about is a process that helps us understand it, so we can help them with that process.
Sarah Wayland 14:28
And I'm curious Penny, like, How good do you think you are as an adult at being able to implement those strategies? Like you've been practicing this for decades, right? And I No, I am not. I mean, I'm a lot better than I was when I was 20. But I still have moments where I just, I just can't
Penny Williams 14:51
That's just being human, right? That's just being human like nobody's perfect. Nobody is going to be able to self regulate all the time. Things are going to come along and blindsided us and knock us off our access. And I think that's just part of the human experience. But what we know is that we can also get back up and we can be okay, we can move forward. We don't have to be stuck there in that place. And I think part of that is honoring your own emotions and feelings about things. So we're not saying that you always have to regulate that stuff away. There are hard things in life that we can't change, we have to figure out how to cope with them. And sometimes that's feeling the feelings, being true to ourselves being honest with ourselves first, and then saying, Okay, I can't stay here. Right. So how do I regulate? Right?
Sarah Wayland 15:41
I think you just said something super important in there, which is that we know we'll get through it. And because I think sometimes our kids think that this is forever, totally. And then that makes them even more upset. Because they're like, if I feel this bad now, I can't feel this way forever. But they don't have enough experience to know that they will come out on the other side, if they can just stay with it. You know?
Penny Williams 16:10
That resilience is tough. Like, it's really, really tough for our kids with neurological differences, because there's extra hard, right, there's extra difficulty there. And they kind of always have to bounce back. And that's not always possible. And that really is very illustrative of how important it is for kids to have little wins all the time. We just need to create so many opportunities for successes, because we have to try to counterbalance that. And to really noticing, when your kids do regulate, or when they go, oh, when we went out and blew bubbles the other day, I felt so calm. And I'm going to try that next time when I'm starting to feel upset or, notice that say something about it be really present with the fact that that's a big deal for your kid. And not just around regulation around everything, everything we need to be noticing, when things are going well for our kids and helping them to have those wins. Even things that are so tiny, to typical families. Right? And then choose my words carefully. They're right. I think that, we just at least have to notice, we don't have to throw a party because our kid brought his lunchbox home today. But noticing even though it feels like right, even though like we should have like all party, invite all the neighbors. If we notice that that's enough, right if we notice with our kid, hey, look, you were able to bring your lunchbox home today. Isn't that awesome? That's something
Sarah Wayland 17:59
Just reminded me but, it's huge. It reminded me of a story from when my older son who lost everything. He literally lost for winter coats one year. I just couldn't keep him in winter coats and they're expensive. Even at the thrift store. They're expensive. And after the fourth coat, I was just beside myself. I was like, I cannot buy you another winter coat. Like, find one of the coats at school. There's four coats hanging out. And a friend of mine on the listserv, I just posted in utter frustration. And she's like, I have five kids, and they're all adults now. So why don't you just come take some of their coats? I was so grateful to her.
Penny Williams 18:47
I have the same kid. We went through the winter coats every year. If he didn't lose it, he destroyed it. Chew through it, pick at it and cut it up. I'll take the scissors out of his desk and cut the sleeves while he was bored in class. I mean, and hoodies hoodies was the worst. Because every day they would never come home. Like, so many of them were I would just have to say I'm sorry. But and of course, he wanted the hoodie because he's the kid who needs the heavyweight and the tight squeeze. Right. So he wanted to have a hoodie on because that helped him regulate right and, but he couldn't ever get it from one spot to another successfully. And I used to beg his special education teacher and other people at the school to take him to the lost and found and help him because it's too overwhelming. He was never gonna go in there and find anything. It was too overwhelming. Like if you just go in there with him. I bet you could find like 10 things that belong to us. Water bottles. I'm sure many can relate. They're nodding their heads in agreement as they listen right now. Because that is so typical, right?
Sarah Wayland 19:51
Indeed. I do want to talk about what it looks like when your kid is regulated. I mean, I think most people know what that means. But you know, just feeling that calm connection with your child is part of them feeling regulated. And just things like acting what we would call respectful, which really just means that they can do what we're asking them to do. They follow directions, they're cooperative. Working hard on the things that you're giving them to do, which, that gets to your point about giving them challenges that are hard, but doable, so that they get this idea of themselves as go getter, then they can do what they need to do, but cheerful and active and engaged, calm and kind, helpful. Like, these are things you can do when you're feeling good about yourself and about the people you're with.
Penny Williams 20:44
And confident, confidence and a sense of competence, both go in that calm and connected state. The nervous system. And I think that's really important to recognize if someone is not feeling very confident or capable. They're dysregulated. You know, that's having an impact on them. Physiologically, not just emotionally. And I think too, we can't understate the fact that that is the connected zone. Connection, is everything. connection can take someone from dysregulated to regulate it, it can help them stay regulated, just in our relationships with our kids, we tend to get riled up when they get riled up. But if we could just stay more calm and be open to some genuine connection, we can help them to regulate, which is CO regulation.
Sarah Wayland 21:42
I always say you have to, I mean, you say it too, if you stay calm, then they can borrow your calm. And that's a phrase I just try to remember is if I can just be calm here, then my son can borrow my calm and calm down himself. And that is the act of reregulating. But you know, kids, I mean, little babies learn that early on. And our kids, it's harder for them to learn that because their nervous systems are so sensitive, so it's harder for their nervous systems to calm down. And Dr. Halliwell, Edward, Halliwell, calls connection, the other vitamin C, he talks about how super important it is for kids and adults with ADHD. And you know, there's so much science that backs that up to the science that we're talking about here. The other thing I wanted to comment on and just use just that our kids nervous systems are so sensitive. And I think that's a really crucial piece of the puzzle that parents and caregivers need to understand. If your child seems dysregulated all the time, it's not because they're kind of wallowing in that it's because their nervous system is constantly being activated and triggered. And so they're living in this sort of hyper vigilant state, which is horrible is not at all pleasant. I remember Luke's freshman year in high school, he was super hyper vigilant. He was so distressed, and uncomfortable. He was hiding in the restroom during class, he was begging me to pick him up, he was threatening to leave the school on his own. He was just constantly waiting for all of these horrible things that were painful and uncomfortable to him. And he was experiencing a lot of them throughout the day, right.
Penny Williams 23:40
But then he was also at the point where he was experiencing so much of it, that he couldn't get regulated, no matter what happened. He was stuck kind of dysregulated because he knew something was going to come soon, there was going to be more. And it was just horrible, horrible state to be in. And you could see it on his body physically, you could hear it in his voice, like he just was so traumatized. And what we ended up doing was having only part of the day at school, and part of the day he was doing school at home because he could not handle that environment. And that lack of control. And that was a really big piece of it, too. And I think that often dysregulates us, all of us, when we don't have any control. We don't know what to expect. We can't control an outcome that can be really dysregulated. And so he couldn't control when kids were going to be off task he couldn't control when people were allowed. He couldn't control when someone bumped him in the hallway, which to him felt like somebody was trying to hurt him on purpose. You know, he always felt like that was intentional. And then he was even more, it's just this perfect storm of dysregulation to a point where he couldn't function.
And I think you know, that's the final piece kind of, of what we're talking about today. Is that when our kids are super we're dysregulated their thinking brain now is offline. It's inaccessible. Now their survival brain or their emotional brain or both have kicked in and taken over. Yep. So then they can't learn. They can't sit still and wait for things to calm down. They can't try to get through an anxious period. They can't connect. They can't process anything. You're saying. There's no rationalizing? You know, I was the great rationalize or as a parent until I learned this, and I never could figure out why it never worked. Not one time. Did my rationale ever calm my child down? I was like, hi. I know. I'm making sense. And he was basically hearing Charlie Brown's teacher, right? Well, I won't, because he couldn't. He promised us that. I mean, that was one of the most pivotal things in my parenting was realizing that the thinking brain was inaccessible. The emotional brain was flooded. I was like, Oh, my gosh, I get my kid now. And now maybe we can figure out what to do. Right. And we did. But that's a really, really important piece of it.
Sarah Wayland 26:04
Oh, yeah. I mean, it's so common, like, you just see they're upset. And if you know why they're upset, and you can come up with an answer. If they could just do it, then they would feel better, but they can't. And I think that's one of the hardest things is to realize that their nervous system is kind of on its own journey here. You have to let it do what it needs to do so that it can get back to a regulated state.
Penny Williams 26:29
And it reminds me again, of Dr. Bruce Perry, and Oprah Winfrey's book, what happened to you, is he does talk about an over sensitized nervous system. And that feels so relatable and thinking about our kids.
Sarah Wayland 26:45
Oh, I think our kids are traumatized on a daily basis. And I think, and that gets back to the point that we were making earlier about, what is a big deal for me, is not necessarily what's a big deal for you?
Penny Williams 26:57
As an adult with anxiety, I have kids with anxiety, the things that trigger me don't necessarily get under them. And vice versa. We are very different in our anxiety, every single one of us. And you have to recognize that I hear parents a lot who also have ADHD, for instance. And they say, Well, when I was a kid, I was able to just buckle down and do this work, or, I use the system, and this is what helped me. And just because you have the same diagnosis doesn't mean you share any of the same traits, or the way that it affects you. And that comes back to what I talked about a lot is parenting individuals, we just have to wipe the slate clean and understand who that kid is that one child that one individual, what is true for them? What are their likes and dislikes? What are their strengths and weaknesses, what helps them what doesn't, what triggers their anxiety, their nervous system, because they're not many clones of us, they are eight different people. And that's a really interesting journey to get yourself to, because in our culture, we're kind of taught that they're just miniature reflections of us.
Sarah Wayland 28:18
You know, the other thing that I love about what you're saying is that they are not us, they are also not living in the same world that we grew up in. So the world is very different. School is very different. The environment, what you do for fun, everything is so, so different than it was when we were growing up. So trying to compare navigating their world with what it was like to navigate our world is just not fair.
Penny Williams 28:45
We have to throw out all of the assumptions. Every time we make assumptions, things go wrong. I mean, just assuming that you know, why your kids upset? And I have completely missed the mark on that, right? Or why your kids dysregulated. And y'all have done that, too. There's no perfect parent or perfect answer to that. But the more you know, the better you can do, right. And so that's why we're talking about regulation and dysregulation and CO regulation. And we are offering for everyone to download our behavior wheel, you can get that in the show notes at parentingADHDandautism.com/171 for episode 171. And when you download it, there are some instructions on it as well to use it. But basically, it's a circular representation of the different states of the autonomic nervous system. And it lists different signals that you might see external or internal signals from your kids. That gives you a clue as to what state their nervous system is in.
And then that gives you a clue as to what's triggering the behavior, what's causing it, and how to sort of address it move forward in a way that actually works rather than punishment or some sort of punitive consequence. Anything else you want to make sure we talk about serum before we close?
Sarah Wayland 30:13
Well, I wanted to say that this is just the first step in a process. So identifying what is going on, oh, my child is really shut down right now. Or, Oh, my child's feeling regulated and calm and connected. That's the first step. But then talking about how to help your child learn to reregulate, there's a whole lot of things you can do. And we didn't have time to get to them today. But I know we will in future podcasts. So I think just remembering this is just one small step.
Penny Williams 30:46
When we talk about our behavior revolution program, this is like half of module one, I think. And there's six modules and a whole lot more. So this is just really starting to sort of peek behind the curtain. I think, if I can make that analogy, and seeing really what's going on underneath for our kids, and using that to inform the ways in which we go forward. So again, if you would like to download the behavior wheel, you can go to the show notes at parentingADHDandautism.com/171. And Sara and I will be back with you in a month. And I will see everyone on the next episode. Thanks.
Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching, and Mama retreats at parenting ADHD and autism.com
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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