What most parents don't know about 'emotional regulation', from a brain doctor (and understanding it may really help)

A neuroscientist explains the process in 7 straightforward steps

Mother cuddling teenage daughter on the sofa
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A neuroscientist has explained the process of emotional regulation and what people might not know about it, in seven straightforward steps. Understanding it could be beneficial to parents needing support to voice their struggles and be in tune with their kids.

Parents asking how to raise resilient kids and how to teach kids emotional intelligence, have likely heard these qualities lead to children who can regulate their emotions with ease. Nurturing these qualities can come down to three crucial parenting rules - all to instil that all-important ability for kids to self-regulate, as this isn't something they're born with and requires teaching.  

However, understanding the process and how it impacts a person as an adult or parent, isn't always straightforward. To pass on the ability to regulate their emotions to their kids, a solid grasp of the science behind it is a good place for parents to start. Moreover, parents struggling with their own feelings, can take important messages from an explanation of the psychological benefits of sharing them.

Dr Faye Begeti, a Neurology doctor and Neuroscientist (@the_brain_doctor) shared the process of understanding emotional regulation with her Instagram followers. Within the post, she laid out the 'real and tangible' effects the process can have on the brain.

7 steps to understanding emotional regulation

  1. When a worrying situation arises, the amygdala activates. Dr Begeti wrote "When a potentially worrying situation arises, two marble sized areas near the centre of our brain are activated. They are called the amygdala, their name arising from the Greek word for almonds because that is what they resemble."
  2. Activation of the amygdala helps avert danger. The Dr added "Activation of the amygdala in potentially worrying situations is an important mechanism to avert danger. How this part of the brain reacts depends on our genetics and past life experiences, and its activation may also be affected in mental health conditions."
  3. The executive brain steps in to rationalise feelings. To explain the next step, Dr Begeti wrote "However, not all our immediate emotional reactions are rational and acting on every single emotion would be counterproductive. That is when the executive brain steps in and tries to rationalise them. This part of the brain integrates information from many different brain areas and puts our emotions in context. This is called emotional regulation."
  4. The executive brain regulates the amygdala. Dr Begeti explained "Using our own internal machinery to regulate our emotions (i.e our executive brain to regulate our amygdala,) is termed 'internal emotion regulation.'"
  5. We can struggle to internally regulate. "But, sometimes, we may struggle to regulate our own emotions internally. This could be due to excess activation of the amygdala. For some people, the amygdala is genetically more prone to activation, leading to anxiety or mood disorders, but this can also happen after traumatic experiences. Alternatively, the executive brain may be struggling. We may be running in 'low power mode' or have ADHD which means there is less capacity," Dr Begeti shares.
  6. There is another way to emotionally regulate. Marking this step as very important, Dr Begeti explained "If our internal resources are depleted, there is another strategy we can use to emotionally regulate. We can reach for external support. Much like we can lean on someone for physical support, we can use other people's brains for emotional support - to help regulate our own. This is termed 'external emotional regulation.'"
  7. Sharing difficult experiences can help. For this final step, Dr Begeti wrote "When we share a difficult experience with someone, their amygdala will not be activated because they haven't directly experienced the event. Instead, their executive brain engages, helping to provide perspective. External emotion regulation is very powerful and explains how we feel comforted when we share our worries with others or receive a hug, and we seek to do so in return."

For parents seeking to understand their own feelings or those of their children, understanding the process of emotional regulation is helpful. In the context of parents or children with ADHD, the post offers valuable insight into the neurological actions affecting capacity to cope with big feelings.

Overall, Dr Begeti's words emphasised the power of sharing struggles, and the positive impact of reaching out if you need to - something parents often find difficult to do. The Brain Doctor summed up by saying "If you're finding things tough, remember that reaching out for support can really help, whether that is a friend, a loved one or professional help. Opening up about your struggles isn't 'nothing' - it has real, tangible effects on your brain." 

Is your tween angry, entitled and rude? They might need help with their emotional regulation. Similarly, the five most common teenage problems can be linked to the need to understand self-regulation, and smacking definitely doesn't model healthy emotional regulation, instead it damages parent-child relationships

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.