Dr. Ablon, director of Think:Kids, explains emotion regulation skills and how a lack of these skills often leads to challenging behavior.
Today, I want to talk to you all about a set of skills that, in professional jargon, we refer to as emotion regulation skills. And try not to get tripped up by the jargon because if you think about it, the word regulation or to regulate simply means to manage or control. So when we’re talking about emotion regulation skills, we’re talking about our skills at being able to manage or control our emotions. And this is an area that if somebody struggles in their ability to manage their emotions, it often leads to challenging behavior. In other words, challenging behavior, whether that’s oppositionality defiance, aggression, or refusal, you name it, those things are often the downstream effect of difficulty managing our emotional response to things like frustration.
I want to share a quick anecdote from early on in my career. One of the first times that I was working in a juvenile detention facility, we were doing some training there; I had a chance to talk one-on-one and do an interview with a particular young man who’d been accused of a pretty heinous crime. And I want to admit I was fairly new to this and fairly naïve. And so as I sat across from this young man at this little table, so our heads were pretty close together, I started off by asking him a pretty silly question. I’m very interested in how our thinking or our difficulty thinking or our thinking skills that we struggle with, how they lead to challenging behavior. So I’m really interested in what’s going on in people’s heads before they exhibit challenging behavior. So I made the mistake of asking this young man if he could tell me when he did what he did, what was going through his head. I actually asked him directly. So, can you tell me what you were thinking when you, and I’ll never forget it, I still get goosebumps thinking about it because this kid leaned in even closer to me, so our noses were a couple of inches apart, and he looked right at me, and he said to me, “That is the stupidest f-ing question anybody’s ever asked me.” And I have got to admit, I thought to myself, may very well be the case. And I was naïve but not defensive. So I decided to carry on, and I asked him, okay, that may be the stupidest question anybody’s ever asked you, but do you mind explaining why it’s such a stupid question? And there was this long pause, and then he leaned back in even more. And he said to me, this I’ll never forget, he said, “do you think I would have done this if I was thinking when I did it? You moron.” And I remember thinking to myself right there, well, of course.
But it’s interactions like that with kids where I often thought to myself, I perhaps could have skipped a couple of years of grad school as well, because what you learn in these interactions is things you can read in a textbook, but man, did they sink in when you learn it firsthand from a youth who’s struggling with skills like this. Because I learned in graduate school that, for instance, proactive aggression, planned proactive, pure, proactive aggression, it’s actually really rare in the animal world, including us human animals. Most aggression is what we refer to as reactive aggression. It’s driven by, for instance, a poor response to frustration, which is an emotion regulation skill. It’s difficulty managing our emotional response to frustration. And unfortunately, this young man was in prison at that point, so he would remember not to do something like that in the future. And of course, what he articulated to me very clearly is when he’s calm and when he’s got his cortex accessible to him, he knows he shouldn’t do those things. That’s not the problem with him. The problem is this skill that, to use jargon again, we clinicians call our ability to separate affect. Why do we call it separate affect, affect meaning emotion? Because what we’re trying to do is we try to separate the emotions that we feel from the thinking that’s going to be required to respond to a feeling like that. And the reality is with us humans, feeling comes flying in whether we like it or not, but we’ve got to go to the door, as my grandfather used to say, and whistle and call thinking into the mix.
And some of us are better at that than others. Some of us are able to stay calm in the midst of frustration and not be flooded by emotion. Because, in essence, there’s a negative correlation or an inverse relationship between how much we humans feel and how clearly we can think. And I want to be very clear that this is not an advertisement for not feeling. No, feeling tells us there’s a problem, but feeling doesn’t tend to solve problems. What you need to do is you need to tamp down the feeling enough. So thinking can rise to the fore also. So you can decide using the smart part of your brain, “How am I going to handle a situation that is making me feel like this?” And unfortunately, in this situation, this young man was so flooded by emotion that there was no thinking going on whatsoever. Now, what does this kid need? He doesn’t need time to think about his actions and what he’s done; what he needs is help developing his skills at managing his emotional response to frustration. So he can think straight. And again, if you realize that challenging behavior is the result of skill, a lack of skill, not a lack of will. It sends you in a completely different direction. So you’ll stay away from a punitive or a correctional mentality. And instead, embrace the mentality that the goal here is building skills.