How Parental Reactions and Meaning-making Help Children to Self-regulate: Self-regulation is an Acquired Skill.

Meaning making and emotion regulation

Christophe. Simone Scholtz.

A parent is driving the children to school. “Mom”, complains Jessica, “Thomas is kicking my seat.” The car swerves to the left and stops. Mother turns around, her face red: “Stop doing that immediately Thomas. If you do not stop kicking your sister’s chair, I cannot drive to school.”

How do we make sense of our own feelings and the behaviours of others? How do we learn to soothe others and ourselves? Our understanding of an event and our capacity to deal with it are two sides of the same coin. Adjust your understanding, and you will react differently. Much personal distress and relational difficulties are the results of painful meaning-making.

In the example above, one can imagine a mother already over-stressed, probably with many worries of her own. One who needs her children to behave in order for her to cope with the multiple challenges in her world. A child kicking another child’s chair is certainly not out of the ordinary, one can say it is probably universal where children and chairs are combined. However, this mother cannot access that thought at the time. She may be thinking, “I cannot stand this! This is completely unacceptable! How dare he do that! He is such an annoying child!” In her stressed state, she is unable to access a more benign interpretation: “Oh, dear, there go the kids being kids. I wish they could just sit quietly like adults. But then, they are not adults, and I should not overreact just because I am stressed.” Then she would be able to say something like,

“Hey you two: Let’s all try to get to school in a good mood. Let’s put on some music, what would you like? Ok, this time we play Thomas’s choice first, the next time Jessica gets to choose first. Thomas, if you feel restless, punch the air, but do it quietly. “

In this way a) She neatly side-steps getting into a power struggle with an already activated child. And Thomas does not get labeled as the irritating one – siblings quickly pick up this dynamic and can get a lot of mileage by subtly provoking the one who tends to get into trouble. b) Both children learn constructive deactivating, and down-regulating skills. c) Mom gets to feel in charge, and not overwhelmed.

If you think that the action of another (including criticism) is unbearable, and is an assault on your entire being, then, of course, this poses an immense threat. If you can think instead that, this behaviour is annoying, but not the end of the world. It is how you frame it that matters. If you think that a child opposing you threatens your authority, then you may respond with outrage. If instead, you take a step back and evaluate why this child so often reacts with rebellion – can it maybe be something that you do – are you overly reactive to this child, are you ‘hooked’ on always having your way, are you maybe frustrating the child’s natural expression, do you deep-down resent this child – then you can curb your emotions, and respond more discreetly.

Through the experiences that we had of being understood and being soothed in our earliest caregiving relationships, we learn to mentalize (to have in mind, to make meaning of) our own reactions as well as those of others. The ways in which we experienced this “having in mind”, will comfort us, or scare us, or make us anxious, or make us want to run away from it. How we respond today is very much embedded in the early reactions of our caregivers.

How you are looked at. The sound of the other’s voice. the expression on their faces. We learn how to regulate our emotions by observing how those who take care of us regulate themselves, and in our experiences of how they respond to us. Regulation and dysregulation are shaped in relationship.

An exception to this is children with Autism, who struggle to learn from others, and who can become intensely distressed. This is a topic on its own, and not discussed in this blog.

What did your parents do when in they were in distress themselves? How did they respond when you were in distress? How did that shape how you respond today?

Seeing ourselves as others see us:

How did your parents look at you? What was the expression on their faces? The sound of their voices? If you were often looked at with rage, irritation, or contempt, if their voices frequently carried frustration and anger, how could you not feel about yourself that you were wrong, no-good, inherently flawed, even despicable?

A simple example is parents who become highly upset when a child is upset. This soon sets a pattern of becoming highly upset when you are upset (often blaming the other).  Another example, frequently observed, concerns adults who scold and blame children for doing what all children do naturally: jump into puddles, get dirty, squirm in their seats, make a mess, tease their siblings, and shout out of sheer joy. The stressed adult is unable to access the childhood mind, berating the child for not acting like an adult.

Anyway, children so readily accept the blame for being in the wrong, parents are easily vindicated, or so they think at that moment. Unfortunately, these children tend to become increasingly naughty – the exact opposite of what the parent desires. In time the children themselves begin to shout and blame – and land in trouble at school, from where they are referred to people like me to “be fixed.”

It is important to understand that the ability to name and manage emotions (or not) is learned (this is therefore the bedrock of some therapies). If your parents had seldom experienced themselves being understood, and rarely had their experiences reflected to them by caring others, they will not find it easy to pass these capacities on to their children. If we are not kept in mind, if we are not related to as a person with an intentional mind, then we will find it hard to keep some rational, thinking mind and to self-regulate when we ourselves are in distress, or when we have to soothe another.

Sometimes an adult can upscale so alarmingly, that a child adapts by downscaling their own emotions, becoming “sweet” and  “good as gold.” Or parental, trying to regulate the adult.

The world of feelings can threaten to overwhelm us. We then do not really want to listen when another becomes emotional, because it evokes unmanageable feelings in us.

How to restore balance

When a parent says to a baby, “Hey, I am sorry that I am irritated with you. It is not your fault. I am worried about work, and now I take it out on you; you are just a baby”, the baby gets to understand that feelings have reasons – even if they are sometimes unreasonable. The child learns that the emotional world, and its problems, have their own meanings and that these can exist separately from the self. Combined with humour and compassion, powerful tools of distress management are thus being developed, as humans learn that people have separate minds and can use meaning-making as tools when they need to cope with their own problems and the difficult behaviours of others.

Adults, who were not sufficiently kept in mind as children, fail to keep others in mind as separate, meaningful beings. They tend to interpret events negatively and fail to consider how their lives influence others, and often show no real compassion for the other, except maybe when they think of the other as like themselves.

This is not only a personal development; whole societies can act like this. Having your mind in my mind has as much to do with how we think of others, as about ourselves. It plays itself out when we meet people who are different from us, and wherever we find expressions of power. Much better to be aware of it than to be unconscious of it, where it can become a power of destruction.

Emotional dysregulation is inherent in all sustained distress and harmful behaviours. It is the bedrock of fractious relationships. Being in distress after an upsetting event is normal. Not being able to recover from your distress days, even weeks later, is not. Responding with focused anger to a real threat is healthy, raging at small and imagined threats, is not. Love and elation are wonderful feelings, but not when they become obsessive and lead to destructive decisions. In learning how to regulate our emotions, firstly it is our family members who instill our habits, later it is our peers, and then the cultures that we live in sanction and shape our responses.

To be able to express your own emotions, and to be able to interpret the emotions of others, both the negative and the positive, in ways that lead to the restoration of harmony and joy, is a life-long challenge, seldom perfected, but always worthwhile to pursue.

Having your mind in my mind

We see ourselves through the eyes of others

A little girl of six, two neat brown plaits standing away from her head is brought to my practice because of her bed-wetting. Her mother is having an affair. The parents are whispering behind their bedroom door, clearly in distress. When the little girl asks about this, they reply that she should not worry, this is a grown-up problem, and they will sort it out. The little girl continues to worry. I understand her bed-wetting to be her inability to cope with the tension that lives behind the closed bedroom door.

“Little girls worry when their parents argue behind closed doors, “ I say.

“Yes”, she replies. “But what does it mean? Does it mean murder?”

The capacity to see things from the child’s perspective is an essential ingredient of sensitivity[1]. This means that the child can be safely held in the parent’s mind. For a child to experience ‘thinking about’ as a safe and inherently useful experience, the parent has to sufficiently often name the child’s experience appropriately without criticism or judgment; just accepting and naming the child’s mind, as it is. Parents who react in ways that a child cannot make sense of, or cannot have in mind, or are unsuited to the child’s developmental stage, creates unknown anxiety and an avoidance to keep things in mind. In extreme cases, a state of “mindlessness” is created.

A few years ago I visited a woman who had worked in our house when I was a child. I was curious about why I had felt so safe and free with her, and had cried such bitter tears when she left. We were having tea in her lounge, when her granddaughter, aged about six, and whom she looks after during the day, was called in from outside where she had been playing with others. She stood at the entrance to the door of the lounge, sulking. “What is the matter?” asked her grandmother, with a note of slight concern in her voice. Then promptly remarked, “Oh you are upset because you have to come in already.” The little girl’s posture relaxed (grandmother was right, and had read her mind correctly, and accepted this without fuss, and without blame or the need for a sermon). “Come”, said her grandmother in a soothing voice, “let me fetch you a yoghurt, and then I will tell you who this lady is who is having tea with us.” They left for the kitchen, hand in hand. When they returned the granddaughter joined us, sitting on the carpet, closer to me now, eating her yoghurt, curious about the stranger.

I understood that this woman has the wonderful ability to see a child, and to care about what she sees, and to name what she sees in such a manner that it contains the child, and to take ordinary practical steps to ‘make things better’.

The little girl in the first example, the one whose parents were experiencing problems, has parents who love her, and who care about her. But they did not feel safe to name her fears. Unnamed they lived inside her. She tried to make meaning by thinking of the worst thing she could think of – did they commit an act of murder? Would this mean they would have to go to jail? What would happen to her? Not coping, she wets her bed.

[1] Research on Maternal sensitivity shows that all mothers, independent of culture or context, tend to respond in similar sensitive or insensitive ways, which can be precisely defined. Simply look up the term, which was coined by Mary Ainsworth. Jon Allen of the Menninger Clinic has open resources on the lifelong impact of Mentalizing, mentioned above.

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