On the value of emotional regulation, aka ‘Keeping your feelings in check’

Home / Attachment / On the value of emotional regulation, aka ‘Keeping your feelings in check’

Yoga GirlThis Christmas week I found myself in conversation with a young mother. Her children have been removed from her care and placed with foster parents. She is currently trying to fulfil the many requirements set out by the local child protection agency that will enable the children to be returned to her. Spending the holidays without them has not been easy.

She is finding it a challenge to fulfil those requirements. She needs to stay off drugs and alcohol. Regular urine tests check how well she is doing. She needs to hold down a job, and to make reliable rent payments so that she has a home to which she can hopefully one day soon bring them. Almost all the evenings in her week are filled with obligatory meetings, including classes on domestic violence, drug dependency, life skills, parenting, and counselling. She needs to attend the weekly visitation sessions where she gets to spend a little bit of time with her children. The sessions last for one hour and are held in the agency’s offices, under the supervision of agency staff, and in presence of lots of other families. During those visitation sessions, she needs to keep her emotions in check, demonstrating that she can provide the emotional stability that children need from their parents. She is expected to manage her intense feelings of grief, anger, guilt, distress, uncertainty, and anxiety, so that she can concentrate on helping her children with whatever they are feeling.

It is a tall, tall order. Every single one of those tasks has proven to be a major challenge at various points in her earlier life. Now she is having to succeed at all of them all at the same time. If she fails on any front, her chances of having her children returned to her care are dramatically decreased.

If you were pushed to say which one of those tasks was the toughest for this young woman, what would you guess? Here’s my guess: the last one – managing her emotions. It sounds so straightforward, “keeping one’s feelings in check”. The formal psychological term for this is “emotional regulation”. This young woman’s stories make clear that regulating her emotions has been a life-long challenge. It is not at all straightforward or easy for her. In fact, its probably a bit of a mystery to her as to how one does that. So the child protection agency is effectively asking her to demonstrate a capacity that is virtually unknown to her.

Emotions are not simply thoughts that ‘pass through our heads’. They are are physiological experiences, embedded in our bodies and neural pathways. Young children’s bodies and brains are not equipped to cope alone with the intense emotions that we humans experience. From very early on, babies feel intense emotion – terror, fear, anger, rage – as revealed through the study of facial expressions, brain development, and physiological states. But babies cannot calm themselves; they need the help of trusted adults to learn what it feels like to calm down. When reassurance, comfort, and attention from adults is given reliably, then children come to unconsciously experience their feelings as manageable. They aren’t overwhelmed by them.

In other words, children’s brains and bodies can only learn what self-comfort and containment feel like when they have first experienced comfort and containment in the arms of a trusted adult. If the brain does not have the opportunity to know this state, then it will not build the synaptic connections that are able to easily facilitate emotional regulation, later on in life. If a child does not have such neural pathways in place within the first few years of his/her life, then the battle to gain control of intense feelings may forever be a losing one.

The moments where children’s ability to self-regulate is (or is not) being nurtured are often fleeting. They happen every time a child is cuddled, scolded, disciplined, smiled at, tickled, teased, or shouted at. I come across examples of self-regulatory moments every day, although they are not necessarily described using that terminology. A few recent examples include:

  • Claudia Gold’s blog entry about an exasperated parent trying to cope with a toddler boarding an airplane
  • Youtube clips of babies falling asleep on a parent’s chest
  • A recent scientific study of the patterns of children’s crying during temper tantrums
  • The scene in our own film, the connected baby, where two-year-old Maisie whispers to her grandmother that she is scared, upon catching sight of herself in a camera lens.

What has all this to do with my young mother hoping to have her children returned to her care? If she is currently having trouble regulating her emotions, then this is a problem that almost inevitably originated in her infancy. If she did not have parents who could reliably meet her emotional needs for safety and reassurance as a baby, then it was entirely predictable that she would become a teenager who had trouble doing this for herself. It makes sense that she might turn to drugs or alcohol or shopping or sex or screaming or violence to assist in managing her emotions. And it makes sense that if she is struggling to take care of her own distress, she will be struggling to help her children cope with theirs. How can you help someone else to manage their feelings if you aren’t in touch with your own?

Does all this mean that this young woman has to be stuck forever in a storm of swirling emotions? No. There are lots of ways we can come to manage our emotions as adults. Chief amongst these are body-brain techniques, such as meditation, yoga, shiatsu, tai chi. Such approaches strengthen self-awareness of our physiological state and thus build new synaptic connections for managing that state. Its just that building those connections takes a lot more effort and diligence at 23 than it would have done at 3.

I found myself wishing that, amongst the weekly classes that the child protection agency is requiring her to attend, they would include mandatory yoga. Such a component would stand a real chance of making a difference to her ability to take emotional care of both her and her children. It might help her to discover an internal world that she has not previously fathomed even existed.

And once I’d got this far in my thinking, I began to wonder if there is a child protection agency anywhere out there that includes yoga or meditation as a mandatory element of their treatment programmes. And if there isn’t, I wonder if there is one who would be willing to give it a go? If you know that the answer to either question is yes, please drop me a line on the website and tell us: www.suzannezeedyk.com.

Meantime, I will be thinking of this young mother and her children, and sending them Christmas wishes for peace and calm.

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