Emotions we experience, from happy to confused to startled to lonely, are there to give us information about the world around us. If we were to feel numb or emotionless wherever we go, we wouldn’t be able to know if our environment was safe or unsafe, pleasant or threatening. Having no emotions might be like the condition of having no sense of touch, where putting our hands into a fire wouldn’t register as hot and we could get severely burned. Actually people who suffer from this condition usually do not survive very long, as we need to use our sensors in our environment to figure out what we should physically avoid and what we should gravitate towards to keep us safe. Emotions are just another kind of feelers we have that give us similar information about the world around us.
Emotions do not force us to respond in certain ways, they only make it more likely we will do so. This flexibility allows us to be curious about emotions and think about how they are related to thoughts and behaviors. When we see a snake, we might feel afraid and run, but we might not always do so. When we find something funny we might laugh, but we might not always do so. How we regulate our emotions matters because our social and physical wellbeing is linked with out emotional responses. Sometimes emotions are triggered automatically, like if we have a large spider land on us we might jump and shake it off or run away or strike it. Sometimes there is a delayed behavior where a situation calls for some analytic thinking about what to do, like if we hear somebody say something belittling about a friend. In either case emotions start a chain reaction that sets forth a coordinated set of physiological, cognitive, and behavior responses that together influence how we respond. Our emotional responses often coincide nicely with our social situations, but sometimes our emotions can be over the top and ill matched to a given situation. If, as a child, you were exposed to lots of messiness and germs resulting in frequent illness you might feel more fearful of public spaces due to increased fear for your physical safety. Our history can create a pattern where if for example your past fear of germs and public spaces can result in behaviors like excessive hand washing, avoiding touching any surfaces, or feeling unable to shake anybody’s hands. Your emotional response might not be matched to the current situation, but makes perfect sense given your unique history.
As parents, we provide a wonderful gift for our children by helping them learn to have, recognize, contain and manage their waves of feelings and emotions. To understand emotion regulation, I like to think of a scale from 0 to 10 with 0 being the most relaxed you’ve ever been in your life. Maybe on a beach somewhere with book in hand listening to waves somewhere between sleeping and awake. A person with a history of chaos, yelling, violence, or other sorts of upheaval is likely to have much greater extremes and sudden reactions than someone from a peaceful and stable environment. For example, a few words of criticism or disagreement and a person from the chaotic past might spike immediately to an eight out of ten on our scale.
By contrast, for someone who is comfortable with feelings and emotions, this same situation of words of criticism or disagreement might induce a reaction of about a three or a four instead of jumping to an 8. The body stays calm, and the person can think clearly and make reasonable decisions. We are more intelligent when we are relaxed. We can think more easily, concentrate, and stay centered. It allows a foundation for seeing the broader perspective and can help with understanding the situation we are in. Therefore it isn’t as much about what happens in the world that effects us as adults, it is our interpretations and hard wired reactions that have an impact over our lives. Seeing that teenagers are already flooded with hormones and over stimulated, what we aim to do is set a model now that teenagers can learn from and have practical tools that will serve them well through adulthood.
The first thing parents can do is try the best we can to create a peaceful environment. We all know how particularly hard this is with teenagers who are notorious for pushing boundaries. Make sure you are getting the care, space and time that you need so you can avoid burnout as this is no easy task! Staying centered and stable ourselves is crucial for creating the kind of environment we want for our children. The second and most fundamentally important way to help your child regulate their emotions is to use our emotional response illicited by our children to model successful emotion regulation. Parents can our own emotions in a given situation to understand how children are feeling, and then give it back to them in a more digestible way. It is sort of like a game of clue. For example, if a teenage daughter starts screaming, “I hate you” and slams the door (something I am sure most parents can both relate to and remember doing to their parents) one way to interpret her emotions is by using the feelings it invokes in you. You might feel hurt, disrespected, confused, distant, and unsure of what to do. Sit with it for a while, make sure you are regulated, and then let her know by saying something like “I can imagine right now you feel hurt, angry, confused, distant, and unsure of what to do. I get that. Screaming ‘I hate you’ made me feel upset but I also can see you are angry and hurting too.” This gives them a model to work from where they can hopefully start using the same method of processing and analyzing emotions to regulate themselves.
It is often necessary to regulate our emotions. Road rage, online bullying, and office rage are now regularly featured in the news. The grim statistics on elder, spousal, or child abuse is a testament to the serious harm emotion dysregulation can cause. On the other hand, we need our emotions in order to understand our environment. What seems to prove essential is having a rich palette of emotion regulatory response options that can be analyzed and flexibly employed given our circumstances with a clear idea of costs and benefits to our particular situation. With enough practice our kids will be able to model our techniques, they do after all give us lots of chances to practice these strategies, so that they can lead a more calm, introspective, and thoughtful presence.