Have you ever found yourself saying to your child or spouse “calm down” or “you’re fine” when they are having an emotional moment? If so, you’re not the only one.
What makes us say these kinds of “shutting down” statements in the face of emotional turmoil? The reality is that most of us have been conditioned to shun emotions or ignore them in the hopes that they will go away and “everything will be fine” once again. This emotional way of being has been referred to as the “Sad Emotional Diet” consumed by most of the population. But the truth is that this way of reacting to others and our own emotions are quite detrimental to our health and well being as an individual, for a child and for a family system.
What ends up being the cost of adopting the Sad Emotional Diet of ignoring and shunning emotions or disapproving them and shutting them down? POOR EMOTIONAL REGULATION…for yourself, your children and your family.
Understanding emotional regulation
Being emotionally regulated means having the ability to be with the intensity of our emotions and not be overwhelmed or dysregulated by them. It’s the ability to experience an emotion, like sadness, anger or fear, and not be overtaken by it that you lose control to your feelings and are taken over by your emotional (limbic) brain.
To be regulated emotionally means to tolerate our emotions and yet still have our “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex) online so as to still maintain the ability to think clearly while experiencing an emotion.
We are not born with the ability to emotionally regulate ourselves. We learn emotional regulation from the type of caregiving we received when we were younger and the ways in which our caregivers responded (or reacted) to our emotional states.
So if you have a hard time emotionally regulating, you likely didn’t learn skills or get the appropriate mirroring or teaching of how to be with your emotions, accept them and process them. Traumatic experiences, where what happened was unexpected, isolating and we didn’t have anyone to help us through it also impacts our ability to learn emotional regulation in the face of stress and can wire our nervous system to be more inclined towards emotional dysregulation.
Many of us have learned to shut down our emotions because either our caregivers disconnected from us when we had strong “negative” emotions, or we got in trouble or were shamed for having them. Societal conditioning also plays a role in teaching us that negative emotions in front of others is embarrassing and not acceptable. As a parent, how often do you feel embarrassed when your kid has a meltdown in the grocery store line? How often do you feel embarrassed when you find yourself becoming emotional in front of others?
In the family unit, emotional regulation or lack thereof can be passed down the family line generation to generation through familial and cultural conditioning. Our parents learned from their parents and we learned from our parents and passed it onto our children. We may have learned strategies for hiding our emotions, but our kids may now be mirroring to us the dysregulation we never truly healed within us and that came down the family line. From the science of epigenetics, we know that traumatic experiences can become encoded in our genetics and if not fully released from our system, it can be passed onto future generations.
The importance of emotional regulation
As much as many of us have adopted the Sad Emotional Diet (SED) of not tolerating, shunning, shaming, ignoring or running away from our emotions, the reality is that we end up suffering from the inability to handle the inevitable harder parts of life. Long-term implications of SED are anxiety, depression and chronic health issues. Emotions are just energy in motion. If the emotions are not understood and released then they tend to get trapped or buried, only to surface later as dysregulation or ill mental and physical health.
When we learn to be with our strong emotions, name them, breathe through them, tolerate them, and be compassionate towards them, then we send a signal to our nervous system to relax and feel safe in the face of these emotions and this creates emotional regulation…and a system that can handle the stress of painful emotions.
Through the work of world-renowned emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman and from the years of research done by John Gottman (author of Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child), we know that being emotionally regulated leads to greater emotional intelligence, resiliency, better mental and physical health and an overall sense of well-being and being able to handle life and its challenges.
How poor emotional regulation shows up in the family unit
As parents, if we were never taught to be with our emotions, tolerate them, accept them and learn from them, then it would be hard-pressed for us to teach this to our children. This is how emotional dysregulation gets passed on generation to generation and can impact younger generations on a more detrimental level. We are seeing this today with the exponentially increasing rates of anxiety and depression in the younger populations. Anxiety and depression are often the culmination of not learning how to be with and process emotions in a healthy way.
Many of us learned that being emotionally regulated means to hide our emotions and be “stoic” and forge through, not allowing our emotions to control us. Although we do not want to be controlled by our emotions, we do want to understand them and do something with them that is productive, as, after all, we are human beings wired to experience emotions for a reason. If we (as parents) hide our emotions, then our children don’t get to learn how to be with and resolve painful emotions.
Although emotional regulation may “seem” to be managed well by parents, we may see it showing up in children as an inability to adapt to transitions and changes, increased sensitivity (both physically and mentally/emotionally), increased anxiety, depression, oppositional defiance, anger outbursts, inability to maintain social relationships, reduced immune functioning and more. As parents, we may find ourselves feeling stressed by our children and view them as “difficult, hard, a pain” and we may be finding ourselves reacting often to our children and trying to get them to stop their emotional reactions by yelling at them or shaming them. All of these are signs of emotional dysregulation in the family unit.
How poor emotional regulation impacts the body and brain
The lack of learning how to be with and process our emotions in a healthy way creates stress in our bodies and can lead to a chronic underlying stress response in our nervous systems. There is much research that shows that a child’s developing brain is greatly influenced by the parent’s ability to mirror an attuned and calming response to the child in emotional distress. The child then learns to feel ok in the face of stress. As a result, the brain wires towards more balance with all parts communicating well together.
When we didn’t get that attuned response or our sense of safety was impacted by trauma, we may become more wired towards an automatic chronic stress response in our nervous systems and brains. This means we are, to some degree, in a chronic fight/flight/freeze nervous system response vs. in a rest/repair/digest response. The amygdala (fight/flight/freeze center) in our brain is on constant alert searching for any stimuli that is threatening and hence our tolerance of stress lowers and our resiliency and emotional intelligence suffers.
Poor emotional regulation shows up in the brain as more activity in the lower centers of the brain (amygdala and limbic system) and less activity in the higher, thinking centers of the brain (prefrontal cortex). We need those higher thinking centers to stay online to help balance the fight/flight/freeze and emotional centers. A brain that works well in the face of stress is one that can have balanced activity from all parts.
Creating emotional regulation within the family unit
As a parent, if you find yourself reacting to your child’s strong negative emotions, this is an opportunity for you to become aware of your own emotional dysregulation patterns and start learning how to be with and tolerate your own emotions. It is important to note that this is not about blaming the parent, but it is about a bigger picture and deeper understanding that your way of being with emotions was learned and passed on, and it is an opportunity for you to change this way of being into one that results in less suffering and more resiliency for you and your children. It is about ending the cycle of conditioning that was passed onto you and embracing a way of being that is more in line with true peace, happiness, and resiliency.
Being an emotionally regulated family unit leads to more acceptance, openness, trust, and connection within all family members. It can give the whole family the feeling of “we can handle this together” and “we accept one another” which leads to greater feelings of love for each other and true, stable connection.
Emotional regulation, however, really starts with the parents. You can only teach what you have experienced and learned for yourself. As a parent, it’s important to start with yourself and really tune into your own emotions in order to then help your child process his or her emotions.
You can do shift your experience of emotions by doing the following:
- Become aware of your emotions, acknowledge and accept them (they are a part of being human!)
- Name the emotion and validate it – this helps to bring the anxiety level down and helps to accept the emotion vs. be in resistance to it.
- Listen to its message – what is it trying to get you to do, say or understand?
- Problem-solving and taking action from this emotion in a healthy way that maintains connection and adherence to your values.
You can use the same process with your kids too!
Tools to help you and your children to become more emotionally regulated
The reality of the fast-paced lives we live today, with 24/7 connection to technology and information, many of us feel immense amounts of stress and overwhelm, and as much as we may try at the moment to shift the way we think and feel about things, sometimes we just need some extra help to rewire the chronic stress/emotional dysregulation response that has become more like a habit living out in our nervous systems.
In my coaching practice, I often recommend a multi-pronged approach to rewire the emotional dysregulation response. It is always great to have tools to help you when you’re in a bind and finding it hard to deal with your emotional reactions to life. Instead of the usual conditioned response of running away from them, eating to stuff them down, or tuning them out by watching TV, you can take the opportunity to use one of the emotion regulation tools below:
- Tuning in to the emotion (and where you feel it in your body) and doing slow, deep breathing until it releases.
- Using Emotional Freedom Techniques (knowing as Tapping) to release emotions and rewire the stress response to emotions.
- Mindfulness/meditation to help quiet the racing mind and balance the brain centers.
- Using Unyte’s iom2 device, with its biofeedback to help retrain your stress response.
- Engaging in a more therapeutic approach of retraining the nervous system through iLS learning systemsthat help to retrain the brain and nervous system through listening technology.
Lastly, as a parent, I highly recommend watching the upcoming Thriving Children Parenting Summit, which is free online and airing July 31st. World-renowned expert of the nervous system and emotional regulation, Dr. Stephen Porges, will be featured on this summit, and I will also be speaking about how to decrease emotional stress as a parent and thrive in your relationship with your child.