“There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us. The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense. At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea; it has us.” – Alfie Kohn’s book ‘Punished By Rewards’
Throughout the literature, “self-regulation” is defined in a variety of ways and as such is interpreted differently by all people. For one person, self (or emotional) regulation may mean thinking positive thoughts, for another it may be “observing” a negative thought and “letting it go.” Further still, it may be more actively attempting to use behavioural techniques to control feelings, such as focusing on breathing. The concern, I find, is that with a broad and inconstant definition the intention is lost. Secondly, regardless of these definitions the assumption is this: thoughts or behaviours control feelings.
I disagree. Feelings are symptomatic (subjectively felt) and behaviours are the signs (objectively observable), of an underlying cause. The central cause are needs, which are met, unmet, or attempting to be met. However, this is not the focus of this article and in the article “The Needs Wheel” this is explored to a greater degree.
Regulation is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “the action of controlling the activity or process.” This gives us an indication that emotional regulation is often about “controlling” feelings or suppressing them in order to conform to what someone else believes we should be feeling, and how we should be responding. However, the definition of “attunement” from Merriam-Webster is to “1. Bring into harmony 2. To make aware or responsive.” Being self-attuned, therefore, is understanding that feelings are a part of the emotional-behavioural communication network. By reflecting on feelings to understand our own needs (remember behaviours stem from feelings, which stem from needs), and gaining support to process them. We are then able to meet or address needs, heal, and then integrate the experience, and grow.
Parents and the world of parenting is given a false understanding of the development of self-regulation in children. From self-soothing, to calm corners and time outs; parents are led to believe that small children have the capacity to regulate on their own, and it is our job to teach them how to do this by force or persuasion. This is the “idea that has us,” because it is largely unquestioned and widely and blindly accepted.
The reality of self-attunement, and its development is the complete opposite, of this belief.
Exploring a brief overview of neurological development, science has come to understand that the brain is built from the bottom up. The brain stem (responsible for survival skills such as breathing) is the first to develop and often referred to as the reptilian brain. Next comes the limbic system. The emotional powerhouse of the brain, the amygdala resides here. The amygdala acts as the warning bell for danger and is concerned with safety and utilising memory and the senses to attain it, often responding to stress. This is the next part of the brain to develop and is referred to as the mammalian brain. Lastly, is the neocortex, the biggest part of the brain, which takes the longest time to reach maturity. The prefrontal cortex (the part behind the forehead) completing maturity when a person reaches their mid-twenties.
If the brain stem is responsible for basic survival, and the limbic system for emotional and physical safety; then the logical next step is the “thinking brain.” The pre-frontal cortex (the part behind the forehead that takes over two decades to mature). That is the part of the brain responsible for:
· Fear modulation (the ability to shift from a state of fear to a state of safety)
· Attuned Communication (perspective taking – seeing another’s point of view)
· Using Intuition
· Morality (to be able to understand ethics and values)
· Response Flexibility (the “stop and think before you speak/act” skill)
· EMOTIONAL REGULATION
The Neocortex, in full, does a great deal more of course but these eight components are areas of struggle for many parents who seek out support from practitioners, experts, and specialists. Hundreds of books are published about “training” children into these skills using a variety of methods from “logical consequences,” to star charts, and forced apologies. However, that part of the brain is severely under-developed, and it most certainly cannot reach optimal development via externally forced measures.
Think of the brain as a blueprint for a house. The blueprint is designed based on genetics, the elements of a person that cannot be changed, from hair colour, to genetic and physical limitations, the blueprint is set. However, just like building a house, the worksite to “create” the finished product has a great deal of possibilities. Tradies, all working on different areas of the house, and detailing the “finished product.” The person in charger of organising and coordinating those trades and liaising with the owner, to have the house completed the way they hope, is the foreman.
The blueprint is the genetic DNA that provides the framework for the brain. The team of tradesmen are the experiences in life that allows the brain to develop. The foreman is/are the primary carers in a child’s life; and the owner is of course the child whose natural inclination is to be connected, cooperative, caring, and cared for.
So how can the foreman create ideal opportunities and give optimal responses to best facilitate the part of the brain that will become the regulation room?
By offering co-regulation.
Co-regulation is the predictable, responsive, and shared regulation of emotion, from an external and empathic person. Whilst the level of co-regulation needed changes over the lifespan, co-regulation will always remain a deep need for all people at various points in their life. The more stressful and emotionally impacting a situation, the more necessary co-regulation becomes.
In a practical sense this is the process of listening, providing empathy, and understanding, whilst regulating your own breathing and physical state, for another.
An example: your five-year-old has become frustrated with their Lego because they cannot find the right piece. It isn’t difficult to find, and you can see it there in front of them. This is the fifth time they have become unable to “see” a piece that isn’t too hard to locate, and despite your help and words of encouragement, it keeps happening. Your child in this moment needs co-regulation, not solutions. So, you sit with you child, look at them as they are becoming frustrated, and say “oh sweetheart, it can be so hard to find the piece you want sometimes. Even though they are right there, it can be so tricky. I know you are frustrated, and I am right here with you.” As you say this, you sit with him, you are taking slow and deliberate breaths, nodding as he rages, and keeping your body language relaxed and open.
The Funnel and The Container
Most parents will know that it isn’t really about the Lego piece, just like it isn’t about the wrong coloured straw, or the dropped ice-cream. These moments are what is known in the adult world as “the straw that broke the camels back.” Aletha Solter, Ph.D., the creator of Aware Parenting calls it “the broken cookie phenomenon,” (when ther is only one cookie left, and it is broken, and your child wails because they don’t want a broken cookie). In my own Practice I have come to refer to these moments as “The Funnel and The Container.”
A funnel and a container are the standard visual of using a funnel to pour liquid neatly into another container. It reduces the amount of “spillage” and allows for the safe containment or transfer of a variety of products.
In these moments of intense, and even disproportionate, emotional reactions to seemingly insignificant issues we know that it isn’t really about what is in front of us at that moment, but about “everything else.” I often explain this to parents asking them to imagine a scenario to illustrate this. To visualise, for a moment, that you have had a really horrible week, you have been trying to get your head around a new project at work, you have moved house and everything is not where you thought it was, you’ve had a disagreement with a friend, and you just aren’t sure what you are supposed to do. You can’t sleep, you are anxious, frustrated, and stressed. Then, on top of it all, you burn dinner by mistake. You lose it and simply cannot keep it in any longer.
We all know that what most people want to do in those moments is talk to, and even cry, to a partner or a loved one or friend, because we know if someone just listened, we would feel that much better. We don’t want people to “fix it,” or tell us we are “overreacting,” we don’t want someone to say, “it could be worse.” We just want someone to listen, that is all. That is co-regulation.
That is what children need in these moments. They need a funnel to focus their emotions through.
In the example above, for the adult, it is the burnt dinner. For the child, it is any number of “wrongs” in their world that for the adult seems trivial, and it is; because it isn’t about that particular thing. Just like it isn’t about the burnt dinner. It is a focal point. It is the emotional funnel.
The container? That is the empathic presence, the one who sit with, who listens, who provides understanding for the feelings, and breathes deeply. Providing a type of emotional anchor, the co-regulator, the emotional container.
As children have regular, predictable, and empathic responses from their caregivers, the tradespeople get to work on building the child’s brain. Dan Siegel shares that “the neurons that fire together wire together,” and this is what is happening. The experiences of the child (the tradespeople) get to work on building (connecting neurons) that helps the brain develop effective and healthy responses to emotionally difficult, even overwhelming situations. As the child grows, their brain recalls how their caregivers supported them in navigating those situations, and they can then begin to do this for themselves.
It is the difference between telling someone what to do and sharing in the doing.
Through co-attunement, children slowly become increasingly self-attuned, and as they become self-attuned in a healthy way, they can extend co-attunement to others; and so, a healthy and empowered cycle begins. The paradox is that self-attunement cannot be develop by the self but must be formed in relationship with another.