The ABCs of Emotional Dysregulation

Does your child have difficulty containing their emotions, exhibiting explosive bouts of anger, or crying? Do you have a teen struggling with excessive anxiousness, depression, or suicidal thoughts, or who engages in self-harm or dangerous, impulsive behavior? Or do you have trouble managing your own emotions, to the point of losing jobs, friends, or romantic partners? These are signs of emotional dysregulation, also called affect dysregulation.



Emotional dysregulation can be devastatingly destructive to relationships, family life, school life, work life, and overall well-being. Click To Tweet


Defined as an incapacity to manage emotional responses well or to keep them within an acceptable range of typical emotional reactions, emotional dysregulation is believed to affect roughly 5% of the population. It can be devastatingly destructive to relationships, family life, school life, work life, and overall well-being. Although it is more commonly seen amongst children and adolescents, it can persist into adulthood.

Emotional dysregulation is not a disorder in itself, but it often plays a central role in a number of mental health conditions. Research suggests affect dysregulation may have a variety of causes including:


A child’s capacity to regulate their emotional state and emotional responses positively impact their family, peers, academic success, and long-term mental well-being, as well as their ability to successfully navigate life as they grow into young adults. It’s a critical component of development.

Yet, some children struggle to manage their emotions. They may experience difficulty registering emotions, responding with emotions that are appropriate to a given situation or regulating emotional responses in social interactions.

Signs of emotional dysregulation in early childhood may include:

  • Refusing to speak
  • Withdrawing
  • Explosive anger
  • Defiance
  • Frequent crying
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Inflexibility
  • Excessive fearfulness
  • Suicidal ideation

Adolescents may cry more intensely than what is appropriate to a situation or have angry outbursts for no justifiable reason. They can show aggression towards themselves or others, or they may exhibit impulsive behavior that involves harmful risk-taking. They may swing between emotional extremes—blissfully happy one moment and deeply depressed the next. Overall, emotionally dysregulated adolescents have trouble interacting socially and often show marked signs of behavioral issues, especially at school.

All of these symptoms are magnified in teens, and it can be alarming for parents. Their anger destroys relationships. Fear can manifest as debilitating anxiety or panic attacks. Sadness can turn to excessive crying, extreme depression, and self-harm. Behavior becomes extreme and risky: They might drive too fast, spend all their money, possibly shoplift, start smoking or drinking and be promiscuous without using protection.


Emotional dysregulation is often a precursor to or a major symptom of a number of mental health disorders, research suggests. It has been linked to:

For example, up to 80% of children with ADD/ADHD report problems with emotional dysregulation, according to experts. It can also manifest in those with ADD/ADHD as socially inappropriate behavioral responses to strong emotion, which is compounded by guilt and shame. In adolescents, research indicates that eating disorders and other compulsive behavior is believed to be a strategy to manage affect dysregulation. It’s important to seek assessment so that mental health disorders can be treated along with emotional dysregulation since they are so closely linked.


Research suggests that children and adolescents who experience childhood trauma are twice as likely to develop a mental health disorder. It also predisposes them to attachment disorders. And as it turns out, it may increase their risk of emotional dysregulation too. Indeed, they are all interrelated.

This may be because of the neurobiological impact of trauma on brain function. When a child experiences trauma—ranging from neglect to physical abuse—the brain is affected. One brain SPECT imaging study in Plos One on trauma survivors found increased activity in the limbic system, which is considered the emotional center of the brain.

Another study in Neuropsychopharmacology examining trauma-exposed teens found compromised function of the prefrontal cortex (involved in emotion regulation and impulse control) and amygdala (involved with fear and the encoding of emotional events), in addition to difficulty regulating emotions.

Invalidation of a child’s experience or feelings is another form of relational trauma. This occurs when a person’s emotional expressions are dismissed, neglected, or criticized by caregivers. Research suggests there may be a generational aspect involved in emotional dysregulation. A study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that parents with this trait are more likely to disregard their adolescent’s emotionality, resulting in greater odds that their offspring will also develop problems managing emotions. Hence, adults must check for affect dysregulation in themselves.


Adults need emotional regulation just like children and adolescents. A high degree of emotional regulation in adults is associated with higher levels of well-being, disposable income, and socioeconomic status, according to research in the journal Emotion.

Conversely, emotional dysregulation can lead to a lifetime of struggles including problems with interpersonal relationships, trouble with academic performance, and the inability to function effectively in a job or at work. For adults, emotional dysregulation may manifest as a big emotional response that is overblown to the situation at hand. Dysregulated adults also have trouble calming down after an emotional trigger, as well as a tendency to avoid difficult feelings and to focus on the negative. They may exhibit impulsive behavior surrounding out-of-control feelings of fear, sadness, frustration, and anger.

An emotionally dysregulated adult may have difficulty discerning what they are feeling when they get upset. Strong emotions may feel so confusing, overwhelming, or riddled with guilt, a dysregulated person often has trouble making decisions or controlling their own behavior.


There’s hope for both children and adults with affect dysregulation. If you recognize emotional dysregulation in your child or yourself—or both, it’s important to seek the help of a mental health professional. Once it is identified and a comprehensive assessment is made to identify root causes, emotional regulation techniques can be learned and related mental health—and brain health—disorders can be addressed.

Research in Frontiers in Psychology showed improvement in emotional regulation with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, hypnosis, and meditationNeurofeedback also has been shown to support emotional regulation in patients with PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other mental health disorders, according to a 2019 study in Neuroimage. Additional tools and strategies are available to treat past trauma, brain injuries, and related mental health issues. Finding the root causes of affect dysregulation is the key to discovering the most effective solutions.

Problems with emotional dysregulation and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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