Self-regulation is Adult Business

Parents often ask me for help in getting their kids to “self regulate.” These parents report that their eight year-old tells them he hates them, that their eleven year-old slammed the door after a rough day at school or that their five year-old has tantrums that last an hour. Firstly, I need to make this clear– Parents, I hear you (in fact, parents, I *am* you on many days): parenting can be extremely difficult, frustrating, exhausting and confusing. 

But, secondly: parents, we need to talk about the idea of “self-regulation.” The language around self-regulation is both ubiquitous and vague. The general ideas behind it are that kids should be able to behave in ways that are calm, gentle and balanced and should be able to exercise self-control so that they don’t behave in ways that are intense, loud, angry or disruptive. Here’s the rub: being a kid is emotionally intense and the only path to becoming a truly self-regulated adult is one that takes many years, cannot be rushed and is reliant on adult support and acceptance of intensity. So, much to the disappointment of every parent, if emotional development is unfolding the way it should, things are going to be loud and messy for quite a while.

What does self-regulation look like in an adult? It shows up as the ability to be in the driver’s seat in relation to our feelings rather than being driven by them. That ability–to retain some degree of separation, intent and choice around one’s words and actions while in the throes of big feelings–is one that I probably achieve 50-75% of the time . . . and I’m fifty! Expecting immature beings (with immature brains) to be able to do this is a set up for frustration– ours and theirs. So we’ll be doing everyone a favor if we put this expectation aside and instead begin to ask: how can we best support healthy emotional development? 

Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s Five Step Model of Healthy Emotional Development provides us with a wise blueprint for the process. Let’s briefly take a look at each of these steps:

  1. Expression: This is where it all needs to start. There needs to be a place for expression without repercussion; a place where everything that is inside is welcome to come out. Crying? Welcome. Yelling? Welcome. Screaming? Welcome. “NO!!”? Welcome. “I hate you”? Welcome. If you are not feeling able to welcome something, explore what it brings up in you (nine times out of ten, it wasn’t welcomed in you when you were a kid). If you still can’t find your “welcome”, take it into play. Play is the perfect place for expression without repercussion and while you watch your child’s movements and listen to their words, you are gathering the clues you need to support the next step . . . 
  2. Naming: We need to introduce our kids to a wide spectrum of feelings. Observe your child, seek to carefully understand them and be specific with your language. Frustrated, disappointed, alarmed and sad —these are all wonderful words for our children to know as they form the beginnings of their lifelong relationship to their feelings. Knowing the name for something in your body leads to the next step . . .
  3. Feeling: This is the step where emotions (which are physiologic action potentials which move us) come into consciousness, bridged by the naming step. Feeling is the conscious tip of emotion. We all know plenty of people who are clearly driven by frustration but don’t “feel” frustrated. It’s impossible to take up a relationship with an emotion we can’t feel, so this step is crucial for the end goal of self-regulation. Emotional safety is necessary if feelings are going to be felt, so our job as parents during this step is to make it safe to feel and to be vulnerable.
  4. Integration: This step–where two opposing feelings can be held in mind at the same time– requires prefrontal cortex development (so we can’t look for it to happen until five years-old at the minimum, and it often doesn’t occur until eight or nine). When the brain becomes a “mixing bowl”, we have arrived at the birthplace of all the qualities we consider virtues: patience (frustration + caring), hard work (caring about a long-term goal + doing something we don’t feel like doing), forgiveness (hurt + caring) and courage (alarm + desire). It is only when each feeling has been expressed, given the correct name and fully felt that the stage is set for its balancing feeling to be felt simultaneously. 
  5. Reflection: It is only when this stage is reached that one is in the driver’s seat regarding one’s feelings (ideally around late adolescence, but for some it doesn’t occur until adulthood, if even then). At this stage, we can sit with our feelings, responsibly share them through words and make decisions around actions that align with our values.

As we can see, emotional maturation is a long process, taking almost all of the childhood and teenage years (if it happens at all). When we try to push self-regulation on young kids who don’t have the capacity for it we are absolutely putting the cart before the horse. The only possible look-alike that kids can deliver is created by pushing down on emotions so that they appear “calm”, “balanced” and “regulated.” Suppression is the exact opposite of the expression needed in step one so we are actually shutting down the entire process. While it may save our eardrums and our pride and may look “neater” on the surface, demanding and encouraging a suppressive stance towards emotions will have a deleterious effect on long term emotional health. 

If we want to support true emotional development, we would do best to understand the process and to invite expression, assist with naming, create safety for feeling and bide our time until integration happens. Then we can rest knowing that reflection –the ability to self-regulate– will come in due time, according to Nature’s wise and beautiful plan.

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