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  • Writer's pictureLittle Bird

Is Your Child's Cup Always Full?

Updated: May 7, 2023

Do you have a child that melts down over the smallest things? Who "loses it" and has extreme emotional reactions that seem disproportionate to the situation? Who has quick "fight or flight" reactions, running away, hitting, or screaming? Who is demanding and needs everything to be their way, or done a particular way, or can't handle not being in control of every situation?

This is developmentally normal for a toddler, who is born with full capacity to feel, but no ability to regulate those feelings. It's also normal for other children and even adults on rare occasions- we've all been there- we had a bad sleep, spilled our coffee, traffic was bad, we felt stressed at work, forgot our lunch, and then we come home after a long day, scramble to find something to make for dinner, rush to cook, and then our child wines about the beans we made and we just cant handle it, in that moment.

I like the cup analogy for regulation. We all have a "tolerance cup"- your nervous system's window of optimal arousal- and when its over-filled, it overflows- that's when we're out of control, have a meltdown, are in fight or flight or shut down. And when it's full, we're dysregulated- we can't think properly or reason, act appropriately, pay attention to others, or control our bodies because we're using all our energy to try hold everything in and not spill over. Or we try to control our environment, the situations were in, and the people around us, because one wrong move by anyone, one more drip, and we'll overflow -imagine holding a too-full cup of steaming hot coffee and how you'd act in a crowded room or if someone came walking quickly towards you.

There are lots of things that add stress to our cup, and it's not all bad. We actually need some stress to get anything done and get ourselves moving- turning on the lights in the morning, having a cup of coffee, going for a walk, having a bit of time pressure to get up and going in the morning, might be all "good" sources of stress that we need to get our nervous systems into a state of optimal arousal to function. The window of tolerance analogy is a similar analogy that explains this well- we can be hypo or hyper aroused, and the goal is to be in the middle, to function at our best.

Throughout the day stress is added to our cup, increasing our arousal level, and hopefully there are things that are reducing our stress levels as it gets too high. Things that might add to our cup are cognitive tasks of remembering what we need to do or doing academic work; external sensory stimuli in the form of sounds, lights, or the feel of our clothing; internal sensory stimuli such as hunger or pain; social pressures; or emotional stressors such as worries.

Things that might remove stress from our cup are using our muscles or exercising (proprioceptive input- using our muscles against resistance- can both up-regulate or down-regulate our nervous system as needed and exercising also gives us endorphins- feel good chemicals which combat stress hormones), getting out in nature, diaphragmatic breathing, taking a break to have a moment to ourselves, eating healthy foods, or drinking enough water.

The problem is, some kids (or adults) have very small cups which fill up very easily. These are those too young to have the brain development to regulate and understand their emotions, and also people who because of trauma or anxiety or other neurobiological differences have a hyper-sensitive nervous system. And some people have things that drastically increase the level in their cups, things that their nervous system is sensitive to. These people might have sensory sensitivities to sounds, the feel of their clothing, visual stimuli such as lights or clutter, or internal sensations; specific worries; or specific environmental or situational triggers due to past experiences and trauma. Things that to us might just increase the level of our cup slightly, might flood another's. And some people's cups are always full- imagine (or perhaps you don't need to) waking up full of worries or negative self perceptions, or feeling constantly bombarded by your environment and the things you see and hear- you wouldn't have much room in your cup for someone accidentally bumping into you, or a sudden change in plans, or things not going how you expected them to.

"Kids do well when they can".

Let me repeat that: Kids do well when they can. (2)

Behaviour is communication, and if your child is "misbehaving" (I hate that term- if their behaviour doesn't match the context or is maladaptive), then they aren't being controlling, defiant, manipulative, attention-seeking, or dramatic- they are missing a skill, or maybe their cup is full.

Next time your child freaks out over "nothing", remind yourself that they would do well if they could, ask yourself it their cup is full, then see what you can do to validate and help them regulate those feelings that have overwhelmed them. (I won't get into strategies now, but "Good Inside" by Dr. Becky Kennedy, and "No Drama Discipline" by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson are both books that have some great practical strategies for responding to big emotions and difficult behaviours.)

And, here's a shameless plug because Occupational Therapy is awesome (I'm not biased at all ;)) and sorely under-used and also because it makes me sad to see kids labelled, punished, ostracized, or medicated when they just need some extra help building some skills or learning strategies: If your child seems to consistently have a full cup, or seems to have a very small cup that overflows easily, or if they're missing essential skills that would allow them to regulate their emotions and respond in adaptive, age-appropriate ways to situations, an Occupational Therapist can help you and your child understand what might be stressing their nervous system, help build missing skills such as emotional regulation, flexibility, or frustration tolerance; and find strategies to reduce reactivity to things in their environment or reduce nervous system arousal and reactivity.

for more information and resources check out:

2. "The Explosive Child: A new Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated and Chronically Inflexible Children", Ross W. Greene

"Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be", Dr. Becky Kennedy

"No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind", Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

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