Electrical voltage. High-pressure gasses. Finances. Water pressure. Emotions. Having a regulator helps us have just enough of something but not so much that it does damage. When we hear people talk about emotional regulation, it might be easy to disregard it as the latest psychological jargon. However, emotions and their dosage are really important. When we tune in to our feelings, they give us clues to our personal needs that are either being met or not.
We need enough emotion to feel fully alive. This means engaged with others and engaged with our purpose and meaning in life, as well as engaged in honoring our inner selves.
With too much emotion, we can feel out of control, overwhelmed or in chaos, like the excitement that sends a 5-year-old climbing the walls or the sorrow that sends someone to bed for days. Too much emotion can make us lose touch with ourselves, others and the present moment, as well as our future.
If we have too little emotion, we may appear flat or lifeless, unexcitable. Perhaps we have learned to numb or compartmentalize our feelings, or we just check out because that feels safer than feeling some big, ugly feelings.
Emotions are good, and they are best when we can regulate them so that we can connect with what they are telling us we need. Regulation does not mean complete calm and complete stillness like a stagnant pond. Regulation means flow–steady, predictable and reliable. It can be anticipated. It is purposeful. Regulation is engagement with the fullness of a particular emotion…regardless of whether the emotion we are regulating is anticipation or grief.
When life becomes overwhelming, it’s easy to abandon a regulated path. We may become anxious, irritable, angry, fearful, withdrawn or turn to some sort of coping. Dan Seigel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, has coined the term flipping your lid. He refers to our lid as the cognitive area of our brain that is capable of reason, impulse control, and identifying certain emotions, as well as discerning if a threat is real or perceived. When the emotional area of our brain can no longer endure something, our emotions get big and take over; we are unable to access the thinking part of our brain. It can take 20 to 30 minutes for our brain to feel safe again and get back to a regulated state.
For adults, we can help our brain and body calm down by taking a time-out from the situation; deep breathing in through our nose and out through our mouth; moving our bodies through dance or walking; rubbing our arms or legs; receiving a hug or touch from another; taking a bath or shower; or even eating salty and crunchy foods, chewy fruity foods, or chocolate. We can rise up from those big flat feelings by moving our bodies, listening to upbeat music, engaging in a meaningful activity or even finding something funny to watch or listen to.
Children aren’t born knowing how to regulate, so they watch how their parents regulate to learn. They’re even one step smarter than this. Lisa Dion of Synergetic Play Therapy Institute explains children “set up” their parents to feel the way they as the child are feeling. For example, a child may become frustrated and act out in a way that is frustrating to their parent or care giver. Clever, huh? Now, they can watch and learn how their caregiver handles frustration so that they themselves will know how to respond when they are frustrated.
For children to learn to deescalate big feelings, regulate their emotions, problem solve and repair, they must observe others’ examples. These skills are first caught and then taught. We engage with our children together in a type of partnership that is called co-regulation. As adults, we regulate our emotions first; we can then help the child regulate theirs by first connecting with soothing comfort before role modeling and coaching calming skills. Once children are comforted and calmed, their lid is no longer flipped, and they have the frame of mind to converse about problem solving and repair. Dan Siegel refers to this as connect and redirect in his book, The Whole Brain Child.
Here is an example of helping a child regulate their meltdown: Sally is five years old and is upset that her Lego house snapped when she was pressing one more Lego on the roof. It pinched her fingers as it crumbled under the weight of her hand’s pressure. In her frustration, she screams and scatters Legos about, all while you are trying to talk on the phone.
Connection looks like putting your phone call on hold or ending it, going to Sally and somehow soothing her distress. You may pick her up, hug her, sit beside her rubbing her back, or rock her either in a chair or in your arms until she begins to calm.
You may breathe so that she can watch or hear you breathe. You may use empathic statements like, “Oh, so mad,” or “Ouch, that hurts,” or “That was a bummer. You worked so hard.” This is seeing the heart of the child. This is offering words to their experience. This is naming the big feelings in order to tame the big feelings, as Dan Siegel teaches.
To help further regulate, you may say, “I’m gonna take a few deep breaths to feel better. Let’s blow bubbles together.” Other calming activity suggestions could be blowing a pinwheel together, each of you rubbing your legs or squeezing a stress ball. Reading a story or bringing in the family pet is often a great comfort. And the calm-down tools suggested above for adults will work with children as well.
Once you have helped Sally regulate her big feelings about this disappointment, her brain will be ready to talk. “That was so frustrating! You worked so hard to make that house you were so proud of. I saw how that very last Lego was the one that made it all fall.” At this point, you can help Sally begin to problem solve. “Once you gather the scattered Legos, would you like me to help you build it again? Or would you like to build something new on your own?” You may offer her a break before coming back to clean up the scattered Legos. You may even ask her what she thinks will make the roof more stable next time.
You have just helped Sally learn what she can do next time to self-soothe, to regulate and calm and to re-engage with the Legos somehow. More than that, she learned she is important enough for you to notice and spend time with, and her big feelings matter enough to be comforted. This creates a child who, upon maturing, has great capacity to emotionally regulate on her own, because you took the time and put forth the effort early on to show her how.
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