One Step Back, Three Steps Forward: Dysregulation and Development
I’ve been thinking about dysregulation and developmental “growth spurts” lately, as my 9-month old daughter has had a weeklong stretch of frustrating behavior. Normally she is a very easy baby; content to hang out with us and do whatever. She generally likes to be held, likes to play with toys on the floor, sleeps through the night, etc. Two weeks ago she learned to crawl —that funny army crawl where babies kind of use their elbow and knee to propel themselves forward as they move across the floor (OT’s in the audience-yes I know the importance of doing a cross-crawl but for now she is doing it this way!). She wants to get everywhere and she is FAST! There is now a lot of time spent telling her “no you can’t go there,” and picking her up to move her back to a space where she can be. She has also started to wake up quite a bit in the night; crying out and banging on her crib rails. I’ll go into her room to see her trying to pull herself up in the bed. Then she gets mad when she falls down onto the mattress. During the day she seems to be is frustrated and upset about everything! She doesn’t want to be on the floor unless she is allowed to crawl wherever she wants to. She doesn’t want to be in her jumper or her exersaucer; but she doesn’t really want to be held either. Basically she just wants to be on the go and exploring her newfound mobility, and if she can’t then she is MAD!
I remember this happening with my three boys as well when they were this age. It seems like my kids go through a period of falling apart around the time they make a developmental leap forward, and even for some time after that as they settle in to their newfound abilities. It’s obvious to me with my daughter that this is what is going on right now because she is my fourth child, but I remember with my first one thinking that he had turned into a nightmare overnight! Now I’m able to ride it out knowing that they all go through periods of time like this and it will end.
In the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)® work I do with families who have children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, I see this same phenomenon occur. Sometimes parents will call or email to say that their child is suddenly going through a very dysregulated time period. When we look at it closer, they have either just developed a new skill or way of thinking about things, or they are about to go through a developmental spurt. It seems to be the brain’s way of reorganizing itself, which can be a dysregulating process. Obviously not all dysregulation in children with these disorders can be attributed to cognitive reorganization and developmental growth spurts, but it is something worth considering if you see it happening with your child. Looking at it from this perspective allows us as parents to slow down and wait to see what happens, without immediately worrying that our child has regressed or become permanently dysregulated. Sometimes in development we take a step back to take a few steps forward; and that is good to remember for all kids!