Mitchell Smolkin

I’m in the middle of a series of podcasts on parenting. It is a strange topic to talk about from the standpoint of parenting being a very personal sphere and something that we generally let our friends, neighbours and family do the way they see fit. But there is a very technical aspect to how human beings process emotions that every parent should know, in part, because it will help safeguard the relationship with your child down the road, but more importantly, it will help them in all of their relationships throughout their lives.

It is referred to as Affect Regulation and this may be very familiar to you or you may have heard this referred to in passing or it may be entirely foreign, but whatever the case, I’ll cut to the chase about why I’m taking your precious time reading about what I have to say about it. Our ability as human beings to go through complex emotional situations and remain grounded is fundamentally tied to affect regulation. The human being comes into the world with non-verbal somatic communications. The baby cries, the toddler throws their body on the floor in anger etc. etc. Think of this as raw affect, pre-language…and as language becomes more sophisticated, the child/adult can go through painful situations without resorting to crass responses where the nervous system thinks there is an unsolvable and overwhelming danger and needs to freak out and panic.

This is a nuanced affair though and this is the thing that people so often miss about this developmental process. Our children can only go so far as we have gone in our own emotional development in this regard. If we are having trouble regulating ourselves where there is a strong emotion in our children, guess how their nervous systems are going to develop? What is often seen as a perfectly healthy parental response, for instance being firm and knowledgeable, is many times defensive in nature in the sense that it is covering over our own helplessness. While this may make the parent feel more comfortable, it can often not allow the emotional complexity of the child to come to the surface and therefore the child develops an internal association to those physical sensations as bad.

For example, a child is carrying milk from the fridge and accidentally drops it and it goes all over the floor, a huge mess. The parent gets frustrated and makes what seems like a totally appropriate comment “You should be more careful, pay attention when you carry stuff…what a mess”. The child is experiencing vulnerability, perhaps remorse for their mistake, and the parent inadvertently adds insult to injury by alienating them from the most important person who could console them. Fast forward to when the child is in the workplace, and enough of these situations where the child is made to feel bad about their mistakes, and they will be sitting in meetings with high degrees of panic about messing up at work.

We do not want that, and the argument that they should be nervous and perhaps it will help them focus more is false. Having a harder time regulating our fear does not help us focus more and furthermore, it can rob someone of the pleasure of an activity because their nervous system is on overdrive. Compassion, understanding and bearing disappointment are the hallmarks of helping soothe someone’s anxiety and it is never more important in the parental dynamic around things big and small. The more we can recognize our own fears and regulate our own emotions and not go into defensive responses, the more we are modelling safety and capacity when it comes to difficult and demanding moments.

Lastly, and I come back to this often, the great thing about the science behind all of this is that repair is the royal road to safety. We do not have to get it right, but we need to confront our own shame and humiliation at making mistakes and display that we can handle it and talk about our own failures. This is what builds resilience.

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