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Blog: A Story of Self-Regulation

January 21, 2020 | matt

Managing our emotions is a skill.  Some people are naturally more able that others to self-regulate, but all of us need guidance and lots of practice as we grow up.  Even when we have 'grown-up', it can still be a struggle from time to time.  Here is a short story of self-regulation.

Managing fight or flight

“It won’t start up and you’re too close to home for the AA to help”. 
This was the moment I realised that I’d have to book a last-minute train to make my appointments in Telford.  Travelling from Preston would’ve taken me a few hours in the car, if it wasn’t broken.

This is a situation most of us can relate to.  If it hasn’t happened to you already, chances are that it will at some point.  Cars are complex pieces of machinery that inevitably break down or run into problems from time to time.  Depending on your level of breakdown cover, there are certain situations that your provider won’t cover you for and these are the ones I usually encounter.

The initial reaction for most people is some kind of emotional response.  For me it was anxiety and fear.  Anxious that I wouldn’t be able to make my appointments and afraid that the car wouldn’t start up again at all and I’d be stranded in a very inconvenient spot for other motorists.  You could argue that both of these emotional responses are driven by empathy - I don’t want to let other people down with my pre-booked appointments and I don’t want to upset other motorists by delaying their own journeys.

After these initial thoughts, my emotions turned to anger.  Angry that I’ll have to make inconvenient changes to my journey, angry at the car for breaking down on me and the associated cost of fixing it, angry at the AA for not helping when I’m specifically paying them for breakdown cover.  I was even briefly annoyed with my mechanically skilled friend who delivered the bad news.

My internal monologue went something like this; “Bloody car, why car??? Why would you do this to me?” followed by “Why can’t you fix it (to my friend)!?” and topped off with “Why does this always happen to me?”

Isn’t it weird that we personalise problems like this as if the car, friend or mechanic has intentionally disrupted our day?  Of course, these are cursory feelings that pass very quickly for most people.  My mind then turned to a trained way of thinking – Solutions! Think of Solutions!  What use is it for me to remain angry, anxious or upset?  Solution-focussed thinking is the best course of action, but my initial feelings are almost unavoidable

It’s an exercise in self-regulation to switch your thoughts from personal feelings of resentment and self-pity to a solution-focussed approach.

For those of us lucky enough to have been coached, educated or guided into this mind-set, we can work through most problems life throws at us in this way.

But imagine a child or young person who has not benefitted from any of this guidance or nurture.  The emotional responses are probably the same, but perhaps they remain angry or upset for longer and these feelings manifest themselves in a more intense way.  How difficult it must be to try and regulate your emotions when you’ve not learnt it from those closest to you or been shown the benefits of it to a variety of situations. 

My issue was the breakdown of a car.  Now imagine theirs is the breakup of a family.  An intense emotional reaction to the breakup of a family should be expected, shouldn’t it?  Car issues are problems that we will all face at some stage, but the breakup of a family or the circumstances that lead to a child coming into care are not common at all. 

Of course, each individual circumstance is different and this must always be taken into account.  But to generalise for one minute, I believe it’s fair to say that any young person (in care or not) must go through a learning stage of regulating their behaviour according to the situation in front of them.  Taking this logic one step further, I would say that this exercise is even more challenging for a child in care who may not have benefitted from an appropriate role-model.

Let’s not forget, the driving force behind my initial emotions was empathy.  This may not be the same for young people who could have suffered significantly in their upbringing.  Nevertheless, I would argue that the initial emotional responses for most children in care are the same responses as everyone else.  The difference is in one’s ability to put their challenges into some perspective in a short space of time.

Personalising responses directed to you as a carer or supporting professional isn’t going to help.  We all do it, I was briefly angry at my friend just for telling me what was wrong with my car and emphasising that it wouldn’t do a motorway journey, let alone a trip to the shops.

My anger towards the AA remained a little while longer as I felt cheated by them.  After all, I’m paying them for breakdown cover which apparently doesn’t cover my car when it breaks down.

But the trained mind quickly throws these emotions into perspective, understanding that it’s not your friends’ fault or the car’s fault and that it’s just a car.  I can’t think of many people who could quickly put feelings about their family into perspective, particularly if;

-          they have experienced neglect, abuse or mistreatment
-          they feel cheated by the adults who should be looking after them
-          the person who would normally support them is not available to offer support

A child who has suffered from poor parenting, neglect or lack of routines and boundaries will naturally be less able to understand the root of these emotions and regulate them.  Expecting that child to respond in a certain way or personalising their response isn't helping.  Equally, expecting a child to stop behaving in a certain way after you’ve made some progress is possibly expecting too much, as we all tend to revert to previous behaviours from time to time.  As the saying goes, old habits die hard.

It’s important to consider that the nature of a vulnerable young person’s response to challenging situations may seem extreme to you, but to them it could be learned behaviour which they have ‘normalised’, probably from an inappropriate role-model.

Most foster carers understand and anticipate all of this. 

However, one challenge that is encountered more than most is when a child’s behaviour is perceived as going ‘too far’.  Why should the child suddenly stop behaving in a certain way and start behaving in the way you want them to?  They are going through the same emotions you would go through in their position and their emotions are winning that particular battle. 

Unable to support themselves through these moments, the young person is relying on care givers and supporting professionals to steer them through the storm.  This is part of the reason why the role of care giver is so important to a child’s emotional development.

And let’s be honest, I’m sure we all know someone ‘grown-up’ who still struggles with this and can be in a fit of rage or despair for quite a while before bringing themselves round. 

Your child’s ability to self-regulate is developed over time with a close, nurturing eye and an understanding approach.  For carers and professionals working through these speedbumps, the challenges pale in comparison to the pleasure and delight of the end result.  These results are not achieved overnight, but with the right mindset and an understanding approach, you too will have your own story of self-regulation….and hopefully it won’t involve getting a train.

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