By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 108


I remember a time when Liliana was around 18  months old and we felt like we were just living life between the meltdowns. She was experiencing chronic dysregulation and it felt like we could never get ahead of it. We’d be able to just come up for air for a few seconds then tie my hair back, roll up my sleeves and get ready for the next meltdown. Every morning upon waking, she’d already be deep within her dysregulation and it gave me no wiggle room to even try a regulation strategy. 

Oh, you’ve been there too? Well, let me tell you how we got through it. 

What you’ll hear in this episode:

What’s the Deal with Chronic Dysregulation?

But first let’s talk about it. No you’re not making it up, chronic dysregulation is a thing. Your child’s nervous system could be stuck in a mode where the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response is the default. 

Remember,  we shift between sympathetic (fight/flight) and paraysmpathetic (rest/digest) mode all day long. Neither mode is inherently bad or good, but we do need them at different points of our day and as with everything, moderation and balance is key.


If we were ALWAYS in parasympathetic nervous system activation, we wouldn’t be able to be as productive in our day, we may not notice or respond quick enough to things that need our attention. 

But if you have a child who’s in a chronic state of sympathetic nervous system activation, it means they’re probably constantly:

They probably have a hard time or refuse to follow instructions and as soon as they wake up they’re already angry about something. Sound familiar? 

Why Do Kids Wake Up Dysregulated?

Now, why do some kids start their day off in meltdown mode? 

There are so many different reasons, but we’ll discuss two. 

Nervous System Hangover

One reason is that they’re nervous system is still dysregulated from the day before. You can be in a chronic state of dysregulation from an event or life change that happened weeks or months ago. 

Maybe your child is still adjusting to the time change. Have you recently added a new baby to the family? That transition can be associated with months of chronic dysregulation for some sensitive nervous systems. 

Shifting from asleep to awake 

Another reason for morning dysregulation is due to the  transition of states  from parasympathetic nervous system to sympathetic. When you sleep, your nervous system is in the parasympathetic activation state (rest, digest). 

Moments before you naturally wake up, your sympathetic nervous system starts coming online. Your heart starts to beat faster, your breath rate is faster, and your pupils dilate as your body prepares you to start the day—you need this system to get online to help you get out of bed and start moving and taking action. 

But for some, this transition can be jarring and stressful to the nervous system. Think of when you took a long nap and woke up disoriented and groggy. You don’t feel great, do you?

What to do when your child is dysregulated in the morning:

When you’re in the thick of it, sometimes you need a quick fix to keep your sanity intact. Here are a few tricks to try (but be warned: these won’t work for every family).

Early Bird Gets the Worm:

If you have a child who has low sleep needs, wakes up really early or you KNOW they just don’t get the greatest quality sleep- this solution is not for you. 

If you have a child who has a pretty consistent natural wake up window (e.g. always somewhere between 7:15 and 7:45), this is the plan for you. 

You’re going to wake them up early. 

Wait- don’t run away. I know I sound like a lunatic lady on the internet. But here’s how it worked for us. 

My daughter’s consistent natural wake time was between 7:30-7:45 so I picked 7:10 as a safe enough time distance away from 7:30 but not too far in advance that it would cut out too much of her sleep. 

I gently started opening shades, turning off sound machine and opening up her closet until she’d wake up. I even did this on weekends, 7:10 on the dot.  

After about 2 weeks of doing that consistently- it’s like her nervous system had shifted somehow. To this day I’m still unclear about the mechanism behind why or how that even worked, but this approach has never failed me over the years I’ve had to resort back to this option. Usually after about a few weeks of doing this, it was enough to “reset” her nervous system somehow and then I could go back to allowing her to wake naturally and there were less morning meltdowns. 

I actually had breathing room to apply regulation strategies in the morning to get ahead of the dysregulation. 

Another plus? Even if she still DID have a meltdown, I felt more calm and able to support her because we had extra time in our morning routine since I woke her up early. 

Give them a mini appetizer

You know those commercials with the cranky person and their friend was like “you’re hungry take a bite of this” and then they bit the snickers and then the person completely transformed into like a calmer person? Great marketing, but also… that’s how I feel when I’m hangry, and probably how your child is too. 

Many kids who wake up dysregulated then often have a hard time transitioning to breakfast, and can start making nonsense requests and demands even when you have a safe food as an option.

Usually that’s a clear sign that you’re way too far gone in the hangry/dysregulated department.

To get ahead of that, I suggest bringing something small  with you when you go to wake them up.

A piece of a granola bar, a handful of cheerios, a morning smoothie to sip? This can make the transition to breakfast a bit smoother and can get them more in a logical headspace to actually eat the breakfast food at the table for them. 

Wake Up Early Yourself

As painful as it sounds, setting your alarm a tad earlier can give you that precious buffer zone to handle any meltdowns like a pro.

Again, this approach isn’t for everyone… please don’t cancel me. I am someone who soaks up every last second in bed, but once I can get myself up and out, it really does get me in a better mindset. 

And no, I’m not going to say go do your workout or go outside for a walk, I’m saying literally just leave the bed, make your cup of coffee and scroll on the couch.

Sit in silence.

It’s just better this way than waking up to a screaming kid. Your nervous system will thank you.

The Long Game: Building Better Habits to Avoid Dysregulated Mornings:

Suppose your 6-year-old loves screen time but experiences meltdowns when it ends. Here’s how you might approach the conversation:

Then you make an agreement to try it out- maybe you try one solution out for a week and then decide together if it worked or didn’t work. Maybe you keep that piece of paper or white board hanging up somewhere they can see.

Conclusion: Empowering Your Child Through Collaboration

Now let’s talk about a bottom up a approach. This approach takes longer to implement and longer to notice results, BUT (or, I should say, AND) you’re most likely to see more sustainable and maintained results. 

You have to try to find a way to create more pockets of regulation in their day. 

You need to disrupt that chronic dysregulation cycle by using proactive regulation strategies.

Here are some things to try:

Episode Links

Help! My child wakes up dysregulated. What do I do?
The first thing that you should know is that you're not imagining things. Chronic dysregulation is absolutely a thing. Your child's nervous system could be stuck in a mode, where the sympathetic nervous system or that fight or flight stress response is just like the default mode for the brain. Welcome to the sensory wise...

The first thing that you should know is that you’re not imagining things. Chronic dysregulation is absolutely a thing. Your child’s nervous system could be stuck in a mode, where the sympathetic nervous system or that fight or flight stress response is just like the default mode for the brain. Welcome to the sensory wise solutions podcast for parents, where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom to Lilyana a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new ot mom, bestie. I know my stuff. But I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder.Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s try the podcast.Hey, everyone, another podcast episode coming to you recorded from the pickup line. So apologies if you hear some cars honking and traffic driving by just try to ignore it. This is the best time I could fit in podcast recording this week to get it to you on time. So today’s episode, let’s get straight into it. You have probably heard me say if you’ve followed me for a while that proactive regulation techniques are the best way to help your child’s nervous system. This really means using a sensory regulation strategy before they get dysregulated. Because when they’re already in that sympathetic nervous system activation mode, they are far less likely to actually engage in the sensory regulation strategy to begin with. They might be too far gone when they’re already there. So doing it proactively is key. But what if my child is literally always dysregulated? I can’t get in front of it because they wake up this way. And it continues all day long. This is the question that I get asked, often and I wanted to tackle that today. So this is a very real scenario. And I have been in this phase a few times throughout Lily on his life. We had a lot more of these though, when she was in the like, two to four year old range. The first thing that you should know is that you’re not imagining things. Chronic dysregulation is absolutely a thing. Your child’s nervous system could be stuck in a mode, where the sympathetic nervous system or that fight or flight stress response is just like the default mode for the brain. As a quick reminder, throughout the day, we are shifting back and forth between the sympathetic which is fight and flight. And the parasympathetic, which is Rest Digest mode. Neither of those modes are inherently bad or good. We do need them at different parts of our day. But as with everything, we need moderation, and we need balance and one mode is necessary and best for a particular task versus the other. So if you have a child who’s in a chronic state of sympathetic nervous system activation, you’re probably seeing a lot of irritability, moodiness, whining, being uncooperative, they probably have a hard time or refuse to follow instructions. And as soon as they wake up, they’re already just angry about something. So why do some kids wake up already? dysregulated? Why does that happen? There are a few different reasons why kids can just start their day out and just wake up dysregulated one of those reasons is that their nervous system is maybe still dysregulated from the day before or weeks before. As I said, you can be in a chronic state of dysregulation, maybe stemming from an event or a life change that happened yesterday, weeks ago, even months ago. Another reason might be the transitioning between the parasympathetic nervous system, state and sympathetic nervous system state. When you’re asleep, your nervous system is in the parasympathetic activation state. This is that rest and digest state like I said, moments before you naturally wake up, your sympathetic nervous system starts to come online. So your heart starts to beat faster, your breath rate starts to go faster, as it helps your body. Prepare to get started for the day. You do need the sympathetic nervous system to get online to help you get out of bed and just start moving and taking action. But for some people and some kids, this transition from parasympathetic to sympathetic state can be really jarring and alerting to them and then that fight or flight response really takes over. So I’m going to share with you a big picture approach, which is what we call bottom up approach, it’s a long term way to support chronic dysregulation, which usually then means it’s not a quick fix, and you might not notice results right away. But big picture, this is one of the best ways to support a chronically dysregulated nervous system. But don’t worry, I’m also going to share what worked for us in the short term as more of a top down or quick quote solution. And I stress the quotes around the word solution, because we’re always thinking about the nervous system. And nothing about the nervous system is so black and white, we never want to think about solving our kids like they’re a problem. But for this particular instance, I can agree with you chronic dysregulation is certainly a problem that warrants some sort of quick ish solution or hack or just something to help us get through the day today. So let’s start with that, we’re going to start with a top down quick response strategy, something that you can try. If you have a child who has low sleep needs, so they’re like sleeping less amount of hours, or they wake up really early, or you know that they don’t get good quality sleep like they’re always waking up. This solution is not for you, I just have to be crystal clear, this solution is probably not the best place to start. So I’m gonna caveat that. But for us, Liliana was getting good sleep, waking up naturally anytime between 730 and 745. This was when she was like 18 months to two years old when there’s like chronic dysregulation was starting. And she would wake up just completely dysregulated. As soon as I’d go in her room after she would wake up and call my name in the monitor. She’d be whining saying no about like literally like anything. It was just I it was unpredictable in the sense of what was going to tip her off. But it was predictable in the sense that you knew she was going to be pissed off about something. So based on advice from our therapist that was working with us, we actually started waking her up before her natural wake time of remember her range was like between 730 to like 745. So I chose the time before 730 I was really really hesitant to try this. Because like why logically what I want to wake up a slumbering dysregulated monster when she was like peaceful and quiet. But when I was given this tip, it was something I hadn’t tried. Before I was open minded, I was desperate to literally try anything. So I picked a time. That was long enough before 730. But not too long. Like I didn’t want to cut her sleep too short. But I wanted to make sure that it can be a time that every day, I would have the opportunity to wake her up and she wouldn’t naturally wake up. So I think I settled on something around like 710 or 715. I started going into her room every day at 710 We’ll just say 710. Slowly, I wasn’t making any big sounds. But I’d start by turning off her sound machine or her fan. I’d slowly start opening her drawers to get her clothes out. I would let in a tiny little peek of sunlight into her bedroom until she would start stirring and wake up. I even did this on weekends. And after about two weeks of doing that consistently. It’s almost like her nervous system had shifted somehow. Honestly, to this day, I still am not totally clear on how that worked, why it worked. But over the course of around those first two weeks, she ended up leveling out in the mornings. And it just bought me enough time to have a calm morning. It gave me some runway to actually provide regulation strategies with her and start off the day smoother. We definitely still had meltdowns in the day. Don’t get me wrong, but at least it was pushed off until like a few hours like I was able to actually have my coffee before I dealt with my first meltdown. So one other benefit to this was that it gave us more runway time in the morning as well. So if she did have a morning meltdown, I at least knew that I had 15 Extra ish minutes in our morning to deal with it because I woke her up early versus pushing up against the last minute trying to get us out of the house on time with a meltdown anyway. So one important thing as I was preparing to try this method for the first time, I just had to like make a very explicit promise to myself and to my husband and we worked on this together to give it a good try. For two weeks, we promised we wouldn’t quit or get scared off if it didn’t work the first day. And so just knowing that there was an end time and knowing I was going to try it no matter what really helped me get in the right mindset ahead of time. And I gave myself a little kind of like a pep talk every time I was about to wake her up, and it totally helped, I promise. And then, so after probably a month, I, you know, I got tired of doing that I didn’t want to do it on the weekends anymore. So I stopped waking her up and it was fine,then she would have more rough patches with the same issue every few months or so then I would do it again. So I probably did that strategy. I don’t know, maybe three or four times throughout a span of about two years, and it worked every single time, I still have no idea why. But it worked. And I’ve suggested this to other parents before, and it has worked for some of them. So definitely give that a try. If you think that that could work for your specific situation. Like I said, though, if your child is already waking up at like 5am, and or they’re consistently awake or getting up in the middle of the night, I probably wouldn’t try this because they just they probably need more sleep. So on that note, though, if your child has exceptionally poor sleep quality, I definitely look into getting a sleep study done, or at least spending more energy trying to normalize their sleep schedule, the lack of sleep can cause havoc on your immune system and nervous system, which can really then be a huge driver for dysregulation. And so then you won’t get very far in impacting their regulation, if they’re not getting enough good quality sleep. Another quick top down in the moment strategy to try is leaving them with a little food offering, or bringing one with you, when you wake them up. So some kids are really they wake up hangry by the time, you know, they’re up in the morning. But of course, they’re not waking up and saying I’m hungry. They’re just whining and crying and refusing to do anything that you tell them. And then of course, when you sit them down for breakfast, just like 15 minutes later, they’re saying they don’t want the food that they just asked for. Even though you know, it’s their safe food. I’ve been there and it’s really hard to break that dysregulation cycle when they’re in it. And even if you know they’re hungry, and that they would, if they would just take a bite that it would be better. And you know that that’s going to fix it, it’s hard to get them to actually take that first bite when they’re so dysregulated. So I suggest bringing a little like a quick morning appetizer so to speak to their room, whether it’s a you know, a break broken off piece of a granola bar, or a handful of Cheerios, literally anything to just get them to start eating, which I’ve found helpful in at least bridging the gap from their room to the kitchen table. Lastly, another tip that might not be for everyone I cringe thinking even about making the suggestion because I know it’s like the last thing some of you may want to do. And I used to roll my eyes when I heard the suggestion, but I’m just going to put it out there anyway. I suggest waking up early yourself. I know. I know. I know. Please, please don’t hang up on me please don’t eggs out of this podcast. I am such a cozy lay in bed until the last second kind of girl. And it felt like all I wanted to do when we were in the rough patch moments was just like to savor every second in bed before I had to put on mom hat. But I know that in those rough patch times I was then showing up to my child’s door room and I was meeting her dysregulation with my own dysregulation as I was like anticipating a bad morning and I knew we’d be rushing and I tried it a few times. It was only a few times the few times I was able to actually wake up maybe 30 to 45 minutes before her and get whatever I needed or wanted done in the morning then I was able to at least be more present with her for those dysregulated moments in the morning. And again no it did not stop the meltdowns but it did feel easier for me to tolerate when I already had my full cup of coffee and some quiet time for myself in the morning even if it meant just sitting on the couch scrolling my phone but like I was already just like up and alert and ready for the day and dressed and I had time to just ease into my day rather than like immediately waking up to her calling my name in the monitor me startling myself waking up and like just rushing out of bed to go get her it just felt easier that way. Okay, so now for the bottom up approach. This is the big picture approach. It takes longer to work quote work, but will also be more sustainable. Well, I’m not going to spend too much time talking about it, because I literally have a whole program to help you with this. So you might know what I’m going to say. But it’s, you have to try to find a way to get their nervous system, more moments of regulation day to day, we want to find ways to expand their window of regulation. Because right now, they’re living in the state of dysregulation. If we think about their dysregulation window, it’s so large, that they’re just like kind of staying in this window of dysregulation. It’s hard for them to get out into that window of regulation. We want to decrease that window of stress, and fight or flight, and we want to help their brain find easier access to pathways of regulation. I know easier said than done like that as the gold standard. Obviously, you would have a child that’s more regulated than dysregulated if you had any control over it, but you can try to expand their windows on regulation when you do things like adjust their schedule, so not just their daily schedule, but weekly, like look at how heavy or busy their weeks are, can you adjust some things? Can you cancel some things? Can you give them more time or break between certain activities. You should also be making sure that their sensory, their emotional and learning needs are being met at school as best as possible. If they’re not, then that’s going to be a huge contributor to their burnout and exhaustion. And you again are going to hit a ceiling in terms of how regulated they are. And you can’t expect them to just access these moments of regulation out of nowhere, it they need to their days, and their weeks need to be functioning at a level that works for them and their nervous system. And they spent quite a lot of their time at school if you have a school aged child. And so we want to see if there is any way that we can meet their needs more in those settings. And last, but absolutely not least, you’ve got to tune in to the specific sensory strategies that regulate their body and work for their nervous system so that you can infuse more of those strategies daily proactively and consistently for them. I definitely suggest working with an OT for that. But of course, I know it’s easier said than done. But this is exactly what I teach in my sensory detectives boot camp, which is a four week live group coaching program for parents who want to learn how to regulate their child’s nervous system at home using sensory strategies. We are opening the doors for the spring cohort very very very soon. So be sure to get on the waitlist at the OT D BC waitlist or just go below this episode and there will be a link there for you. I hope that this episode was helpful. Hang in there. I have been exactly where you’ve been. I promise. I know it feels super dark and lonely. But I promise there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And you’re definitely not alone. All right, I’ll see you next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time.




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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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