Regulating Emotions in the World We Live In
Morgan Bissegger | November 4, 2020
Emotional regulation or the practice of keeping our cool in moments of frustration, fear, loneliness, or vulnerability is no easy task. As our world has erupted into chaos the practice of recognizing our emotional states and trying to manage them in helpful ways has become even more challenging and more important. The stressors that have occurred in people’s lives over the last 8 months are unprecedented. While life has always held unknowns, the lack of predictability in how the Covid-19 virus will progress, how long it will impact our lives, and how it could transform the world creates a whole new set of questions. This on top of employment instability, reduction in social supports and less access to the ways that we take care of ourselves in combination with the political and civil unrest occurring worldwide can create an environment ripe for increased stress and anxiety in the world of adults. When under the pressure of navigating the unknown our internal resources are being utilized in a whole different way. The well from which we draw patience and strength is being pulled from at a significantly greater rate. With less access to sources of replenishment, our capacity to engage in the world from a consistently regulated place may be reduced. Over the course of this year other adults have shared that they are experiencing greater challenges in maintaining self-care, increased frustration, and those who are parents have expressed that it is much harder to keep their cool and not respond to their children’s outbursts with an outburst of their own. I offer this all as a way to consider the impacts the last eight months have had just on adults. It has been hard.
Now let us consider those little people that are working really hard to learn about the world and how to be in it. Except, wait, the world they were learning how to be in just got flipped upside down on its head. No longer can kids run and play freely, no longer can they hug their extended family or special people. They have to wear masks, are reminded of social distancing and are scared their grandparents might get sick and pass away. The dramatic and fast changes of the last year have been confusing for kids. We know that they function best in a world that is consistent and predictable. When they cannot anticipate what might happen next anxiety begins to grow, when those they seek out for comfort are depleted and stressed, anxiety begins to grow. There is an adaptive advantage for children to pick up on their caregiver’s emotional state. A regulated and present adult is what helps to calm a child. If the adult appears scared or unsure, a child’s anxiety or fear will increase, because if the adult is unsure or scared then there really must be something to worry about. We know that kids are scared and confused, and that adults are scared and confused. Based on that it makes sense that everyone’s capacity to regulate their emotions has been a little bit challenged this year.
One of the special parts of being a kid, or being in a particularly emotionally dysregulated state, is that it can be really hard to coherently express what is wrong. For kids they might not have the language or access to the words in the moment of big upset. When we ask what is wrong or what they need and they respond that they just do not know, it is likely that they just do not know. Think to a moment when you were really upset, and maybe your partner asked what was wrong – did you know? Could you specifically articulate how the activation of your vulnerabilities and fears caused you to yell or just sit down and cry? When kids get these big feelings, this is often what happens for them too. They will show us with their behaviours that they are not ok, but be very challenged, especially in the moment to share what is wrong, or why it is that they are just not listening. What can be helpful in these moments of overwhelming emotion can be moments of simple connection, us as adults finding our peace and using it to co-regulate the little person who is hurting. We can validate that things are hard and confusing and be with them in that moment, so they do not have to be there alone. Being scared alone is always so much harder. Support them in noticing how they feel and alongside them move out of the overwhelmed place.
I know that this is much easier said than done and have supported enough dysregulated kids to know that there is so much more to it than this. But the basics, the first steps, is checking in with ourselves, how are we as the adult, the caregiver, the leader of that moment, how are we managing? Are we leading the charge of regulation by holding on to our own? If we are there, can we find connection to that child in that moment? If those two pieces are in place, the strategies and methods we can employ to teach children about emotional regulation may fall into place and we can work with the child to support growth and development. In this strange year of upheaval, it may take a little more time and require a little more inward reflection and patience. But if we can make it through these moments, the rest may not seem quite so big.
Morgan Bissegger, M.C., Registered Psychologist
Speaker for the 2020 November Online Children’s Mental Health Conference
Join us for our upcoming annual Children’s Mental Health Conference via online format airing November 20-22, 2020!