Think of a Dimmer, not an Off-Switch
How many times have you heard someone say, “I just want my kid to be happy”? Let me be on record saying that I don’t have anything against happiness, but I’ll be honest: it’s not my top wish for my children. What is? I hope my kids are resilient. I hope they’re good at struggling. I hope that when inevitable difficulties come their way, they can manage. I guess I think happiness is nice, but healthy coping is better.
So, then, what does healthy coping look like? Healthy coping acts like a dimmer, not an on-off switch. What do I mean and why am I talking about electricity? When difficult emotions get turned on, it’s as if a dark room suddenly becomes blindingly bright, the type of bright where you cover your eyes with one hand and push the other hand into a stop position. The type of bright that feels painful and uncomfortable, in part because it is so abrupt and unexpected.
Healthy emotion regulation acts like a dimmer switch: we try to find things that, slowly, help regulate our bodies, that bring the blinding bright light to a still-on but more-manageable level. Under this model, we can slowly make ourselves feel a little bit better, but most of the time, we cannot quickly make ourselves feel much better. How do we do this with our kids? Usually by slowing down our reactions, labeling and validating the emotions and motivations under their behaviors, and expressing empathy.
When difficult emotions get turned on, limited coping looks like a room that only has an on-off switch: you’re in that suddenly bright room and you’re on a frantic search for something that will take all the distress away, that will turn the blinding light totally and completely off. This might sound nice, but as all of us adults know, we rarely can completely turn off the hard stuff, i.e., anger, hurt, loss. We sometimes have to put our efforts toward managing stress, not eliminating it. And, when you get into a pattern of having a blindingly bright light turn completely off, you have a harder and harder time tolerating any amount of light that might be on in a room.
Think about it: if every time a bright light came on, you turned it totally off – or someone turned it off for you – your eyes would never learn to function in the presence of any light, and over time, you’d find even a dim light to be unbearable. In other words, later in life, a medium or even a small amount of distress that comes up in your life would essentially feel the same as extreme distress, because you had not developed any “I can cope and adjust” skills.
We want to connect to our children’s distress, not take it away, so that our children can feel strong and capable. So imagine a tough moment with your kids, and think about how to pause and dim their distress little by little. Let’s build circuitry for distress tolerance, not distress avoidance.
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