If you are a parent or have ever felt that emotions were something that could be destructive, please read on. This is perhaps the most important information I can share.
I received a comment about yesterday’s blog post, which triggered this response. I addressed the concept of “fearmines” (fear buttons that trigger hidden emotional landmines). It may have been a bit oversimplified, but it was also right on target. Today, I’m going to get a little deeper and describe why hidden emotional landmines are actually at the heart of most of our problems today (crime, risky youth behaviors, depression, unemployment, divorce, greed, war) and how it all ties back into our emotional regulation system that was developed in infancy. I’m also going to share what you can do to help your child develop a healthy emotional regulation system so that they can survive in today’s chaotic world.
Infants (and children) have brains and body systems that are not fully developed (e.g., nervous system, hormones, etc.). Because these systems are still in development, infants and children are extremely vulnerable and highly dependent. As such, babies and children rely on their parent/caregiver as an external system to regulate their care. In other words, imagine having half of a heart, half of a lung, half of a liver, half of a kidney, etc., etc, and needing another human being to compensate and basically act as the missing parts of the heart, liver, kidney, etc., etc. It’s more than co-dependence and completely needed for the child’s healthy growth. Just as the baby depended on the mother in the womb for survival and development, the infant and child STILL depends on the mother/caregiver after birth.
The emotional regulation system becomes disrupted when adequate care is not given to an infant and child. This includes ignoring a baby’s cries, telling them to shut up, or confusing their cries with something else (like shoving a pacifier in their mouth when they want their diaper changed). While we never respond to a baby perfectly 100% of the time, if the number of inadequate responses exceeds the adequate responses, then the baby forms a maladjusted emotional regulation system. This is also preverbal, so later in life some external stimuli can elicit an internal anxiety response that was felt as a baby but now doesn’t make sense for the grown adult to understand. Instead, they feel like something else takes over them (sometimes referred to as an emotional hijacking).
To recognize the symptoms of this disruption in an adult (or yourself) includes common responses like these:
· *Feeling like you can’t trust your emotions and that they can get out of control
· *Denying that you have troublesome feelings
· *Believing that relationships are not important or, conversely, never being able to be alone
· *Always trying to be an ideal person that someone (or your parent) will love and finally approve
· *Cutting off from others
· *Constant relocating and/or job changes
· *Battling or overpowering others and/or using others for your own gain
· *Escaping through drinking, drug use, sexual addictions, food addictions, etc.
The challenge as parents is that we tend to fall back on our own unconscious learning and repeat the same behaviors with our children—which is how such patterns repeat themselves through the generations (generational transmission).
Not surprisingly these symptoms show up in society. Societal symptoms of maladjusted emotional systems form when enough people grow up without healthy emotional regulation systems (reinforcing the problem). Such societal symptoms may include:
· *Focusing on external productivity over internal emotional states and healthy relationships (like over-focusing on what the child wants to be when they grow up; over-focusing on child’s grades in school; over-focusing on how much money someone makes, what kind of car they drive, etc., etc.)
· *Chronic relationship disruption and emotional illness (which can be seen in rising divorce rates, escalating depression and other mental health related illnesses, increased crime, increased bullying behaviors, increased self-centeredness, decreased compassion and tolerance for emotion in others)
A solution to this problem is to work on ourselves and form a new healthy emotional regulation system. Oftentimes, therapy does this because the therapist can sit with the person and affirm their feelings, allowing the person to fully feel their own feelings and then safely respond to them without judgment. This process helps to develop new neural networks of self-care (new emotional regulation systems). In addition, people can do this same thing for loved ones, join support groups, journal about feelings, obtain spiritual support, and do things that provide safe love and emotional healing.
When the person is able to form a new healthy emotional regulation system, they are able to sit with their feelings (even the uncomfortable ones) and are more able to tolerate other people’s emotions. When that happens, they can also sit with their needy infants and children and better respond to their needs without anxiety, frustration or panic.
Another symptom of a healthy emotional regulation system is relationship repair. Accepting that no one is perfect and conflict will arise is important to remember. The key is to be able to effectively repair your relationships after a disruption. The more immediate the repair, the more neural networks are formed in the healthy emotional regulation system.
As parents and people, it is critical to comprehend the extent that infants and children are dependent on us. We need to make them a priority and attend to them. This does not mean spoiling them with toys—it means being there, loving them, empathizing with their needs, and helping them to understand and attend to their emotions.
Children become out of control when we ignore them and get angry—putting them in time-outs when they aren’t developed enough to understand consequences. We also run into the trap of referring to punishment as “tough love” when we take away a privilege without taking the time to process our children’s feelings and fears and understanding what motivates them to engage in behaviors that may scare us.
Finally, understanding that our societal values of productivity over relationships may actually be a symptom of inadequate infant/child care can help us to change the narratives that perpetuate infant/child/human emotional abuse. We are making strides in addressing emotional care as a society, but we’re not there yet. Perhaps the current economic problems, rising unemployment rates, risky behaviors in children (increasingly younger sexual promiscuity in children, “hook-ups”, self-abuse like cutting, bullying, school shootings, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide) will wake us up to the real war that we’re in—the war with ourselves and our own internal emotional regulation systems. Focusing on healing our internal war through love, compassion, empathy, healing, tolerance, awareness, and helping each other as a larger family (instead of isolated individuals in big houses) will surely help the next generations to develop healthy emotional regulation systems. Perhaps when that happens, global harmony (aka world peace) can actually be obtainable.