How parental reactions and meaning-making help children to self-regulate. Self-regulation is an acquired skill.

Meaning making and emotion regulation

“Seeing ourselves from the outside and others from the inside”.

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 result of painful meaning-making.

Through the experiences that we had of being understood and being soothed in our earliest care-giving 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 imbedded in the early reactions of our caregivers.

A simple, common  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, concern 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, 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 to manage emotions (or not) is learnt (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.

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, has its own meanings, even if they do sometimes spill over – 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 our 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 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, first it is our family members who instil 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 interpret the emotions of others, both the negative and the positive, in ways that lead to the restoration of harmony and joy, this is a life-long challenge, seldom perfected, but always worthwhile to pursue.

Having your mind in my mind

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.

Author: elzanfrank

I am a psychologist searching for more natural and enlivening ways to help. After thirty years in the profession, it is time to move on, time to search for new ground, time to venture out.

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