Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S
(*Parents in this article refers to any adult functioning in a parental role for the child)
As a mental health professional who works with children, what’s a favorite emotion regulation skill you teach children and how can you integrate parents to help their child generalize that skill into their daily life outside of the therapy office? These are two key questions we need to ask ourselves as mental health professionals when working with children who struggle with emotion regulation. Engaging parents in the treatment process can improve the long-term treatment outcomes for children. This blog post focuses on the benefit of integrating parents into the play therapy process to help children strengthen their neural circuits for emotion regulation and promote resiliency. Children are the next generation of heroes in our communities. Helping children develop resiliency and effective life skills, such as regulating emotions, empowers them to succeed. As mental health professionals, we can support parents in the treatment process because they play a critical role in helping their child successfully navigate the challenges of life.
Children need adults to help their emotion regulation neural circuits develop and widen their window of distress tolerance, which promotes resiliency for children. Resiliency is the goal. Resiliency is the ability to navigate the “ups and downs” of life with lots of “bounce back” ability. This means therapists need to help parents become skills coaches for their children and regulate their own emotions. Siegel and Hartzell (2003) propose conceptualizing emotion as an integrative function. They state: “emotion links physiology (body), cognitive (information processing), subjective (internal sensory), and social (interpersonal) processes” (p. 77). The relationship between both the regulatory and regulating aspects of emotions provides a way to understand the connection between the influence of the mind on emotions and influence of emotions on the mind- it’s the chicken and the egg dilemma – which comes first – our beliefs and perspective of events that trigger emotions (mind) and/or how emotions trigger can trigger beliefs and perspectives of events (emotion).
Schore and Schore (2008) reframe Attachment Theory as Regulation Theory due to the neurobiology of attachment and its role in co-regulation and the development/strengthening of neural pathways. Mindsight, as developed by Siegel (2011), proposes that integration of complex neural circuitry of the mind is the key to emotional well-being and that our ability to connect with the minds of others, such as with attachment relationships, is also dependent upon the integration of these complex neural systems. The interpersonal mind-to-mind synchronization between parent and child through the resonance circuits is the key to helping children use their parents for co-regulation of their emotions. Resonance circuits refer to the integration of complex neural circuitry identified by Siegel (2011) that are heavily influenced by mirror neurons. These resonance circuits help parents to be attuned, even at the psychobiological level, with their child and play an important role in their child’s ability to accomplish internal integration and self-regulation through co-regulation with a regulated parent (Badenoch, 2008; Siegel, 2011; Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). The goal in treatment is to help children use the regulated state of their parent during “emotional storms” to regulate their internal emotional state over and over until they can eventually self-regulate their internal emotional state.
What can therapists do to help parents become skills coaches for their child for emotion regulation? I love including parents in the sessions as we explore and identify how the child experiences emotions physiologically (where and how in the body), developing an emotion vocabulary, and identifying what activates those emotions. Parents and their child can have a conversation about how the child experiences emotions and learn to scale their emotions using the 5-Point Scale (Dunn Buron & Curtis, 2004), and then use that information to create a coping plan. Parent and child can work on those skills over the next week. This is where the magic happens – the child learns to use the skill when they need it most – outside of our therapy office – in their day-to-day functioning. Parents help their child generalize the skills learned in the therapy session to application in their everyday lives.
I like using the 5-Point Scale (Dunn Buron & Curtis, 2004) because it helps conceptualize emotion on a continuum from least severe to severe. The coping skills used when an emotion is less severe will likely differ from coping skills used when an emotion is more severe. For example, deep breathing may help when an emotion is less severe, or even moderately severe, but the child will likely need an adult to help him (or her) co-regulate during an “emotional storm” to eventually regulate themselves. Mental health professionals can help parents and their child identify what that parental help will “look like” during an emotional storm because what may work for one child may not work for another child. It’s important to help parents and their child explore and identify what co-regulation and coping skills are needed to help the child during their emotional storms, which is why it’s important to integrate parents into the play therapy process.
Here’s a recap:
· Children need their parents to help them create integration for their emotion regulation among complex circuitry in the mind.
· Emotion has an integrative function and the integration of these vast neural circuity promotes resiliency and emotional well-being
· Parents and caregivers use their resonance circuits to connect mind-to-mind with their child and help them regulate their emotion circuits
· Integrating parents and caregivers into the treatment process as skills coaches is important for accomplishing long term emotion regulation and self-regulation
Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families using play therapy? Check out this free pdf for the Be 5 framework using intention and therapeutic presence in a clinical framework for play therapy. Click here
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Dunn Buron, K., and Curtis, M. (2004). The incredible 5-point scale: Assisting students with autism spectrum disorders in social interactions and controlling their emotional responses. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Schore, J. R., and Schore, A. N. (2008). Modern attachment theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36, 9-20. doi.10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7
Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam.
Siegel, D. J., and Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NT: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.