What Is Dysregulation?

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What Is Dysregulation?

Dysregulation, also known as emotional dysregulation, refers to a poor ability to manage emotional responses or to keep them within an acceptable range of typical emotional reactions. This can refer to a wide range of emotions including sadness, anger, irritability, and frustration.

While emotional dysregulation is typically thought of as a childhood problem that usually resolves itself as a child learns proper emotional regulation skills and strategies, emotional dysregulation may continue into adulthood.

For these individuals, emotional dysregulation can lead to a lifetime of struggles including problems with interpersonal relationships, trouble with school performance, and the inability to function effectively in a job or at work.

Causes

Now that we know a little bit about what it means to live with emotional dysregulation, you might be wondering what exactly causes this problem in the first place. Why is it that some people have no trouble remaining calm, cool, and collected while others fall apart at the first instance of something going wrong in their life?

The answer is that there are likely multiple causes; however, there is one that has been consistently shown in the research literature. That cause is early psychological trauma resulting from abuse or neglect on the part of the caregiver. This results in something known as a reactive attachment disorder.

In addition, a parent who has emotional dysregulation will also struggle to teach their child how to regulate emotions. Since children are not naturally born with emotional regulation coping skills, having a parent who cannot model effective coping puts a child at risk for emotional dysregulation themselves.

Disorders Related to Emotion Dysregulation

We know that emotional dysregulation in childhood can be a risk factor for later mental disorders and also that some disorders are more likely to involve emotional dysregulation.

Below is a list of the disorders most commonly associated with emotional dysregulation:

When emotional dysregulation appears as part of a diagnosed mental disorder, it typically involves a heightened sensitivity to emotional stimuli and a lessened ability to return to a normal emotional state within a reasonable amount of time.

Symptoms

Below are some examples of what it looks like when someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation.

  • Your boyfriend cancels plans and you decide he must not love you and you end up crying all night and binging on junk food.
  • You are at the bank and the teller tells you that they can't help you with a particular transaction and you'll need to come back the next day. You have an angry outburst, yell at the teller, and throw the pen across the counter at them.
  • You attend a company dinner engagement and everyone seems to be talking and having fun while you feel like an outsider. After the event, you go home and overeat to numb your emotional pain.

Note that the behaviors of emotional dysregulation will show up differently in children, involving temper tantrums, outbursts, crying, refusing to make eye contact or speak, etc.

In general, emotional dysregulation involves having emotions that are overly intense in comparison to the situation that triggered them. It means not being able to calm down, avoiding emotions because you feel them too strongly, or being unable to switch your focus from the negative. Most people with emotional dysregulation also behave in an impulsive manner when their emotions (fear, sadness, or anger) are out of control.

Emotional dysregulation can also mean that you have trouble recognizing the emotions that you are experiencing when you become upset. It might mean that you feel confused by your emotions, guilty about your emotions, or are overwhelmed by your emotions to the point that you can't make decisions or manage your behavior.

Outcomes

Being unable to manage your emotions and their effects on your behavior can have a range of negative effects on your adult life. For instance:

  • You might have trouble sleeping.
  • You might struggle to let experiences go or hold grudges longer than you should.
  • You might get into minor arguments that you blow out of proportion to the point that you end up ruining relationships.
  • You might experience negative effects on your social, work, or school functioning.
  • You might develop a mental disorder later in life because of a poor ability to regulate your emotions (e.g., depression)
  • You might develop a substance abuse problem or addiction such as smoking, drinking, or drugs.
  • You might engage in self-harm or other disordered behavior such as restrictive eating habits or binge eating.
  • You might have trouble resolving conflict.

A child with emotional dysregulation may experience the following outcomes:

  • Reduced ability to focus on tasks
  • Problems complying with requests from teachers or parents
  • A tendency to be defiant
  • Problems making and keeping friends

Treatments

The two main options for treating emotion dysregulation are medication and therapy, depending on the individual situation. Let's take a look at each of these in turn.

Medication

Medication may be used to treat emotion dysregulation when it is part of a larger mental disorder. For example, ADHD will be treated with stimulants, depression will be treated with antidepressants, and other issues might be treated with antipsychotics.

Therapy

In terms of therapy for emotional dysregulation, the main treatment method has been what is known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

This form of therapy was originally developed by Marsha Linehan in the 1980s to treat individuals experiencing borderline personality disorder.

In general, this type of therapy involves improving mindfulness, validating your emotions, and engaging in healthy habits. It also teaches the skills needed to regulate your emotions.

Through DBT, you learn to focus on the present moment, how to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how to deal with stressful situations.

DBT argues that there are three "states of mind."

  1. Reasonable mind refers to being logical and rational.
  2. Emotion mind refers to your moods and sensations.
  3. Wise mind refers to the combination of your reasonable mind and your emotion mind.

DBT is about showing you that you can see situations as shades of grey rather than all black and white (in other words, combining your emotion mind and logic mind).

If you've just experienced a stressful situation or crisis and want to try a little DBT at home, pull out a journal and answer these questions.

  • What was the event that caused you distress?
  • What did you think about in the situation? (Write down three main thoughts.)
  • How did these thoughts make you feel? (Write down any physical symptoms, things you did like crying, or feelings like being upset.)
  • What was the consequence of the thoughts you had?

The goal of DBT is to balance your emotions with logic to obtain more positive outcomes from the situations that you find stressful. The goal is also to teach you to become more aware of the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. In this way, it's expected that you will be able to better manage your emotions in your daily life.

Parenting a Child with Emotion Dysregulation

If you are a parent of a child who struggles with emotion dysregulation, you might be wondering what you can do to support your child. It is true that children learn emotion regulation skills from their parents. You have the ability to teach your child how to manage emotions rather than become overwhelmed by them.

Your child also needs to know that they can reach out to you for help and comfort when needed. Having a supportive and reliable parent figure in their life will help to protect them against problems with emotional dysregulation.

The first thing you can do is to recognize your own limitations. Do you have a mental disorder or have you struggled with your own emotion regulation skills? If so, you and your child might benefit from you receiving treatment or therapy to build up your own resilience. When you are better able to manage your own distress, then you will be able to offer the most support to your child.

In addition, the best way to teach your child how to manage their emotions is not to demand that they behave in a certain way or punish them for acting out. Rather, the best option is to model the desired behavior yourself that you want them to adopt.

It can be helpful to start to recognize triggers for your child's behavior and have a back-up plan of effective ways to deal with acting out. For example, if your child always has a tantrum when you take them to buy shoes, try picking out a pair in their size and bringing them home for them to try on.

Children who struggle with emotion dysregulation benefit from predictability and consistency. Your child needs to know that you will be there for them when they need you and that they can rely on you to be the calming presence. When your own emotions are out of control, then it is much more likely that your child will be unable to manage their own emotions.

If your child is in school, it is also important that you talk to their teacher about their problems with emotion regulation. Talk about the strategies that you use at home and how your child might need extra help in the classroom or reminders on how to calm down. If your child has a diagnosed disorder, they may be on a special education plan that allows accommodations or gives them extra help. Be sure to take advantage of that.

Finally, it's important to reward positive behavior. If you see your child acting in ways that are positive for emotion management, comment on those positive behaviors. Find ways to reward emotion management successes, so that they will become more frequent.

A Word From Verywell

Whether it's you, your child, or someone you know who struggles with emotion dysregulation, it is important to know that this is something that can improve over time. In fact, 88 percent of those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder are not predicted to meet criteria 10 years down the road. This goes to show that emotion regulation strategies can be learned and are very helpful for improving your situation and living the best life possible.

Regardless of your current circumstances, you can make changes that will result in improved social, school, and work functioning. You can learn to manage the stressful situations that cause you pain and work through past hurts or mistreatment that led you to where you are today.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Schechter DS, Willheim E (July 2009). Disturbances of attachment and parental psychopathology in early childhood. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 18 (3): 665–86. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2009.03.001.

  2. Amarine, MC, Frankenburg, FR, Hensen, J, Reich, DB, and Silk, KR. Predictions of the 10-year Course of Borderline Personality Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163:827-832, 2006.

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