Emotional dysregulation refers to difficulty in regulating emotions. It can manifest in several ways, such as feeling overwhelmed by seemingly minor things, struggling to control impulsive behaviors, or having unpredictable outbursts.

These displays of extreme emotion can affect relationships, work, school, and daily life. Someone who is able to regulate their emotions can adapt their behavior when the situation demands. A person who is unable to do so may have a condition called emotional dysregulation.

Although emotional dysregulation is not necessarily a sign of mental health disorder, it can be a symptom of various conditions, such as disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

Read on to find out more about emotional dysregulation, its symptoms, treatment, and how parents can support children living with this condition.

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Emotional dysregulation is a condition that affects how a person may experience and handle their emotions. It is very common in children and adolescents and can persist into adulthood.

When someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation, they may have difficulty regulating their emotions and have angry outbursts, anxiety, depression, or display self-damaging behaviors.

People with dysregulation may not have an appropriate emotive response to the situation they are in. Eventually, the condition can impact a person’s quality of life, social interaction, personal life, work-life, and relationships.

Emotional dysregulation can also be a feature of other conditions, such as, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and others. Doctors may also refer to it as dysregulation, marked fluctuation of moods, mood swings, or labile mood.

There are many different types of emotional dysregulation, and each person’s experience is unique. Typically, emotional dysregulation means an individual has excessively intense emotions in response to a trigger. Therefore, an individual may feel their emotions are out of control. They may also have difficulties recognizing their emotions and feel confused, guilty, or stressed about their behavior.

Some common symptoms include:

  • experiencing strong emotional reactions to events that would not normally affect other people
  • mood swings
  • feeling overwhelmed by emotions
  • having intense emotions that are difficult to control
  • inability to cope with stress
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • self-harm
  • excessive substance use

In some cases, the cause of dysregulation is not easy to find. There are many factors that can cause emotional dysregulation in a person.

Early psychological trauma due to abuse or neglect from caregivers, seems to be one likely reason. This trauma can mean the child does not form a bond with their caregivers and can develop a reactive attachment disorder. Additionally, if caregivers themselves live with emotional dysregulation, they may struggle to model coping skills and balanced emotions.

Sometimes emotional dysregulation still occurs even without any identifiable psychological causes or causes relating to their upbringing. It may just be in the child’s nature, or their neurological makeup.

Emotional dysregulation in childhood may increase the likelihood of developing other mental health disorders. The following conditions can involve some aspects of emotional dysregulation:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Doctors usually diagnose this neurodevelopmental disorder in childhood. However, it can continue into adulthood. Children with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention or controlling their impulsive behavior.
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD): This developmental disorder can affect communication and behavior. Generally, symptoms appear in the first 2 years of life.
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD): People with BPD have an ongoing pattern of issues relating to self-image, mood, and behavior. This can result in taking impulsive actions and relationship problems.
  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD): Doctors may diagnose this condition in adults or children who have repeatedly experienced trauma, such as violence, neglect, or abuse.
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD): This childhood condition can involve experiencing extreme moods and intense temper outbursts. It can impair a child’s quality of life and may require clinical attention.

Doctors may recommend a combination of therapies to treat emotional dysregulation, including medication or psychotherapy.

Medication

Doctors may use medication to address emotional dysregulation in individuals with a larger mental health issue.

For example, methylphenidate helps emotional dysregulation by reducing impulsivity in children with ADHD. Other medication classes, such as antidepressants, can alleviate the symptoms of dysregulation.

Therapy

Doctors may use psychotherapies to help a person overcome their emotional dysregulation. We can divide these therapies into four groups:

  • dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • multimodal treatment such as parental interventions and pharmacotherapy
  • other therapies, such as analytic group therapy, hypnotherapy, or neurofeedback

DBT is a common therapy for BPD that involves learning skills that may help a person regulate their mood or emotions. People can also learn how to become aware of their thoughts and feelings and deal with stressful situations.

Standard DBT can include four components, such as group sessions, individual psychotherapy, telephone coaching, and a consultation team.

The ‘dialectic’ approach means that the therapist accepts the person’s emotions as they are but acknowledges the need for change. The goal of DBT is to help people balance their emotions with logic. This can help to produce positive outcomes in stressful situations, and a person may be more able to manage their emotions.

Learn more about types of therapy here.

Children who can freely express and regulate their emotions often have better friendships, social connections, and success at school. These children may also have better mental health, relationships, and satisfaction at work later in life.

There is a link between healthy emotional intelligence and a person’s improved life satisfaction and better educational or career outcomes.

Emotional dysregulation can present in various childhood psychiatric disorders. It can often mean that the child may exhibit challenging behavior. Helping the child to manage their strong emotions can help diminish this behavior. Therefore, it is important to put strategies in place to support these children in developing emotional literacy.

Caregivers or parents of children with emotional dysregulation can support and help teach children to manage their emotions so they do not become overwhelmed. It is also important that children know they can ask their caregivers for help, support, and comfort whenever they need it.

Being a supportive and reliable parental figure means that individuals must recognize their own limitations. If the adult lives with mental health issues or emotional dysregulation, both adult and child may benefit from attending therapy. Parents who can manage their own stress and emotions can offer adequate support to the child.

Parent training is a technique that professionals can use to teach parents, caregivers, and children how to respond to irritable behavior. It focuses on predictability and consistency because the familiar pattern of these actions may have a calming effect on the child. Combining parent training with therapies such as CBT can benefit the child.

Additionally, caregivers may also find it helpful to recognize triggers for their child’s behavior. This means that they can plan to avert their child’s intense emotional response.

Adults should discuss their child’s emotional problems with school teachers to come up with strategies that can help. Schools may provide special education plans to help those with diagnosed issues. Finally, caregivers should reward positive behavior so it gradually becomes the standard rather than the exception.

Emotional dysregulation means that an individual has difficulty regulating their emotions. They may feel overwhelmed, have difficulties controlling impulsive behaviors, or have angry outbursts. These intense responses can cause trouble with relationships, work, school, and daily life.

Doctors associate emotional dysregulation with several mental health conditions, including DMDD, BPD, and ADHD.

Although people may experience ongoing emotional challenges, regular therapy and possibly medication can help an individual manage their emotional dysregulation.

To help support your mental well-being and that of your loved ones during this difficult time, visit our dedicated mental health hub to discover more research-backed information.