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Emotional Dysregulation is a Vicious Cycle


Emotional dysregulation is an inability to control strong feelings like sadness, anxiety, or anger. This can lead to behavioral problems. And it can create a perpetual cycle that will likely continue until there is some type of intervention.

Frequent or prolonged emotional dysregulation is especially harmful to a young person’s healthy development. So, it’s important for youth workers to learn how to intervene. And to have strategies you can use to help young people learn to better regulate their emotions and stay safe.

What emotional dysregulation may look like

Young people get dysregulated, everyone knows that. And many of us believe that children just naturally learn to manage their emotions as they grow up.

But when a young person experiences intense emotions too often, too quickly, acts out because of them, and cannot control them or calm themselves, that is emotional dysregulation.

And it could show up as:

  • Mood swings
  • High anxiety
  • Angry outbursts
  • Trouble coping with stress
  • Depression
  • Feelings of shame
  • Frequent irritability

Everyone feels these types of emotions from time to time. But when we cannot manage them, they can overwhelm us. Adolescents are especially at risk during this critical developmental stage.

And if they don’t have the support they need, a vicious cycle of dysregulation develops. That’s why youth work is so important. You have the ability to disrupt the cycle before it becomes a way of functioning.

Youth Intervention can break the cycle of emotional dysregulation

At each step of this cycle, there are golden opportunities to intervene. To understand the emotional dysregulation cycle and how it can be broken, let’s consider an example of a girl fighting with her girlfriend over a boyfriend.

  1. Emotional dysregulation: She may feel disrespected, embarrassed, stupid, or hurt when told her friend was seen with her boyfriend. Unless these emotions are handled properly, they will create turmoil and lead to the next phase of the cycle.
  2. Cognitive dysregulation: She may start to believe that others are out to get her or that she needs to humiliate her friend or her boyfriend. Unless these cognitions are put into proper perspective, they will cause stress and lead to the next phase.
  3. Behavioral dysregulation: She concludes that others must be held accountable because the emotional and cognitive dysregulation are unbearable, so she acts out. Acting out leads to the next phase.
  4. Tension release: Acting out behaviorally will release the tension – the act itself is reinforcing and perpetuates the behavior. The release is needed regardless of the consequence.
  5. Remorse or shame: The cycle will likely continue based on her emotional outcome. Shame is the feeling you get from others; they tell you that you are supposed to feel bad for your actions. Remorse is the feeling you get when you let yourself down; you feel bad because you didn’t want to act that way.

When young people do not have the emotional support they need, they grow into adults perpetually caught in this dysfunctional cycle. It strengthens over time and becomes increasingly difficult to break.

Let's ensure that all young people have a caring adult in their lives to support them

Each of us has a role to play in ending the emotional dysregulation cycle. Certainly, as youth workers it is one of our main functions. We must be strong advocates and social activists to ensure all young people have a healthy support system.

So, how are your social activism skills? YIPA has FREE social activism trainings and blogs that will help you get started or improve your activism. Sharpen your skills today.

About the author

Paul Meunier is the executive director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

To ask Paul a question or share your feedback about this blog, email [email protected].