Emotion regulation: It’s one of the biggest challenges of childhood (and parenthood!). We all want our children to be able to do it, but they struggle with it so much, and this is the root of many of our own struggles in parenting.
But instead of trying to get them to reduce the intensity of their emotions, should we instead be trying to reduce the stress they experience from things like a too-hard seat at school, itchy labels, and the scratch of cutlery on plates? Is there any peer-reviewed research supporting this idea?
We’ll find out in this, the most frustrating episode I’ve ever researched, on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s book Self-Reg!
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Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode comes to us courtesy of listener Alison, who sent me some information on Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work on what he calls “Self-Reg,” which seems to be his branded term for “Self-Regulation,” and asked me to explore it in an episode. And I really don’t think she or I realized what a can of worms we were opening up when she sent the question and I said I’d look into it.
According to Dr. Shanker’s Self-Regulation Institute, Shanker Self-Reg ® is “a powerful method for understanding stress and managing tension and energy, which are key to enhancing self-regulation in children, youth and adults of all ages. Decades of research have shown that optimal self-regulation is the foundation for healthy human development, adaptive coping skills, positive parenting, learning, safe and caring schools, and vibrant communities.”
I got Dr. Shanker’s book, which is also called Self-Reg, and I have to say that my warning signals started to go off when every footnote that I went to check out led to a book, rather than to a peer-reviewed journal article. Now journal articles aren’t perfect; I actually saw an article in the New York Times recently on three scientists who managed to publish twenty papers in journal articles across a variety of fields over the last year in which they “started with politically fashionable conclusions which they worked backward to support by aping the relevant fields’ methods and arguments, and sometimes inventing data.” And I’ve also seen articles describing how major, respected publishers released entire publications that were sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies and looked like peer-reviewed medical journals but didn’t disclose their sponsorship.
But in general, journal articles are how scientific information gets disseminated, because they include a methods section and a results section so experts and other readers like you and me can understand how they arrived at their conclusions. Then other scientists can replicate that work if they want to, or at least offer critiques of the methods and conclusions. But no such system is in place when a book is published.
Craig Silverman, who wrote a book on media accuracy, says in an article in The Atlantic that he did an anecdotal survey asking people: “Between books, magazines, and newspapers, which do you think has the most fact-checking?” Almost inevitably, the people he spoke with guessed books, but it turns out that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book publishing world at all. The article goes on to say that “reliance on books creates a weak link in the chain of media accuracy” because “magazine fact checkers typically treat reference to a fact in a published book as confirmation of the fact, yet too often the books themselves have undergone no such rigorous process.” Further, when only the book title is provided in the footnotes we have no idea what in the book is being cited – whether it’s the entire premise of the book, or some obscure sentence on page 475.
So I want to be clear here and say that I don’t have reason to believe that Dr. Shanker’s book is a lie. I also don’t have evidence to show that the books he’s relying on to support his points are based on lies, mainly because I don’t have time to read a hundred books in preparation for this episode. But what I do know is that books are about the least reliable form of evidence you could draw on to make a point about something that’s important to get right, and that he also doesn’t cite research that I now know is available that could actually have supported his ideas. Instead he makes statements about how he has scanned the brains of hyper-aroused children in his lab (but doesn’t describe any published journal article coming out of that work, which is pretty unusual).
Elsewhere he describes a process of physical sensations becoming associated with distinctive emotions: “For example, if an infant is hungry and her cries go unheeded, her muscles tense up, which is associated with sensations of discomfort, and a distinct feeling of anger may begin to emerge. If a caregiver responds to these first signs of anger by scolding the child…then the physical sensations and the nascent feeling of anger that the child experiences may become further bound up with feelings of hopelessness. As the child grows older, the same physical sensations – a stomachache, for instance – can trigger feelings of anger and hopelessness – and leave a parent befuddled, completely unaware of how a deep-seated physical/emotional association might be the culprit…” Again, there’s no citation provided for this work and I’ve yet to find any research or researcher who can corroborate that this process happens.
A third example is related to a concept called the “interbrain,” which I did find described elsewhere, and which is a kind of shared intuitive channel of communication, which is how parents sense things like tiny shifts in their child’s mood. Then Dr. Shanker goes on to imply that for some children, minor stressors like “the gleam in a parent’s eyes or a hug or a gentle touch, which normally would be a source of positive arousal, can be more than the baby can bear.” Once again, I couldn’t find any literature or researcher to support this claim, and my overall impression of the book is that Dr. Shanker takes research on children facing severe stressors like poverty and violence, and connects that research to minor stressors like itchy clothing labels, whirring fans, and the gleam in a parent’s eye to tell us middle class white parents that our children have severe problems, when actually the research doesn’t really support these claims.
When I went on Dr. Shanker’s Self-Regulation Institute’s website to look for evidence supporting the principles of Self-Reg I found a series of videos discussing the principles which, strangely, I can no longer locate. One of which talked about the movement’s detractors and how people who don’t want to be convinced of Self-Reg’s benefits will never be convinced. He went on to say something along the lines of “there’s evidence to support Self-Reg” – but nowhere is this evidence ever actually described.
If you search “self-reg” in any scholarly database, you come up with pretty much nothing except the occasional hit on a non-peer-reviewed article authored by Dr. Shankar. And I’ve also learned in the course of researching episodes for this show that when a single researcher’s name gets too attached to a concept – if they’ve basically made their name on a concept, then that’s an extra reason to be suspicious. We saw this in our episode on grit, where we found that the peer-reviewed papers showed effect sizes that were nowhere near as large as Dr. Angela Duckworth describes them to be in places like her book and her TED talk. Growth Mindset may also be a useful tool but is likely not as large a determinant of success as Dr. Carol Dweck states in her TED talk. So when I see that Dr. Shanker is essentially the only researcher whose name is tied to Self-Reg but he has actually trademarked the term “Shanker Self-Reg,” my danger radar starts beeping even more loudly.
Honestly, I find the claims about self-reg to be compelling. I want to believe them. They align with the way I view children, which is that bad behavior isn’t bad behavior; it’s the child trying to tell us something and what Dr. Shanker argues that they are trying to tell us is that they are stressed.
But in the absence of much in the way of real evidence in the book or on the Self-Regulation Institute’s website I reached out to the organization to ask them what they had. I told them that I really do want to believe in what they say but I asked to see some evidence, and the very friendly response that I received essentially said two things. Firstly, that “Self-Reg is a relatively young model and, as a whole new approach rather than a program, there is time involved in learning the model and refining how best to apply it. We have begun this work and I am happy to share the research we do have. I would welcome you to look at our website,” and then there’s a link to the home page, not to any specific evidence for the approach.
I’ve seen this idea of it being a “young model” bandied about a lot in the Self-Reg materials – but what confuses me here is that they somehow claim that it’s a young model and they’re still conducting research on it, but Dr. Shanker has written a book that’s at least two years old by the time you’re hearing this. His bio on his website says he received a $7 million grant in 2005 to establish a state-of-the-art cognitive and social neuroscience centre at York University in Toronto, which was the largest gift the university had ever received. He has advised governments on child development in at last twelve countries, and developed Shanker Self-Reg, his five domain model for understanding, recognizing and alleviating the impact of negative stress. The Mehrit Centre, which also funds Dr. Shanker’s work, has a Foundations Certificate program that you can pay $1495 to take online, as well as a Level 2 Facilitator Program which grants you certification in The Shanker Method ® for $2,195, a Master’s Modules Program for $2,195…and the list goes on. So my question is: if Dr. Shanker has had over a decade in his state-of-the-art cognitive and social neuroscience centre, and has had time to write a book and develop courses to train people on Self-Reg and wants to see the entire country of Canada become a “Self-Reg haven,” as he says in one of his marketing pieces, where’s the research? How do we know this stuff actually helps?
Because so often in doing this show I’ve seen ideas that have prima facie merit actually don’t hold up when we start looking into them. The first one of these that I ran into was on how to how to raise a child who isn’t racially prejudiced – I’d always just assumed that the best way to do this is to just not mention race, because then my daughter will learn that it isn’t an issue. And it turns out that this is actually one of the most effective ways to raise a racist child! And before I did my episode on self-esteem, I just assumed I’d find studies saying how beneficial it is, and then some studies on how to get more of it, and it turned out that actually – despite a massive push in California in the ‘90s to increase every child’s self-esteem as a way of solving the state’s societal problems – high self-esteem hasn’t been shown to cause good life outcomes – it’s entirely possible that people who have good life outcomes just have high self-esteem. So while it can be attractive to jump on these bandwaggons, that’s not what we do here at Your Parenting Mojo. We dig into what research there is and get our hands dirty and then try to make a decision based on the best evidence we can find.
Which brings me to the second major point of the email that I received from the Self-Regulation Institute, which was to direct me to their new open-access peer reviewed journal called Reframed: The Journal of Self-Reg. The journal has a link to a page showing its editors; perhaps not surprisingly Dr. Shanker is listed first, followed by Lisa Bayrami who is the Executive Director of the Self-Regulation Institute. The Managing Editor is Anne Showalater, a Ph.D Candidate in Canadian Studies and is the person who responded to my email. Two of the four members of the Editorial Board are described as having explicit connections to the Self-Regulation Institute or the Mehrit Centre, so I think it’s safe to say that this journal is probably not going to publish any research that’s critical of Self-Reg. And actually, as far as I can tell, it’s not going to publish much in the way of actual scientific research at all – it’s essentially a series of blog posts describing different aspects of Self-reg, with sources cited at the end of each one – the majority, as usual, being books rather than peer-reviewed journal articles. So in this episode I’m going to go through the references provided in the book, as well as in the Self-Reg “journal” articles, and from other peer-reviewed sources and we’ll see what we can find.
So what is Self-Reg? I’ll summarize the first chapter of Dr. Shanker’s book. He starts by arguing that while *self-control* is important in being successful in life, sometimes the more we try to control ourselves the harder it gets. More important than self-control is the amount of stress we are under and how we manage this, or how we self-regulate. Dr. Shanker gives the example of cold outside being a “classic example of an environmental stressor that the autonomic nervous system responds to” – in a roundabout way, he states that if there are too many external stressors like being cold on top of the usual emotional, social, and cognitive stressors then the child’s limbic system can become hypersensitive to the slightest hint of danger. It registers the cold as a big threat that causes the release of neurochemicals that trigger fight or flight mode, and if that doesn’t work then the brain freezes – like an animal playing dead. The oldest, most “reptilian” part of the child’s brain releases adrenaline which sets off a series of reactions that result in the release of cortisol. You’ve likely felt the result: heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure increase; you’re alert and reactive; your sweat glands open to cool you down, and endorphins are released that increase your pain tolerance. These are exactly the reactions you need if you really are facing a life-or-death threat, but our brains can’t tell whether a threat is real or just from a video game, or if it’ll be over in a minute or might last for hours.
When we are in this mode, all of our body functions are geared toward managing our reaction and we can’t think clearly. Think back to the last time you got really angry: you probably couldn’t get your words out straight because your higher-order brain couldn’t control things like your language, reflective thinking, mindreading, empathy, or self-control while you were in that state.
Our brains are constantly shifting states, between being fast asleep through drowsy, calmly focused and alert, hyper-aroused, and in fight or flight mode. All of us do this, all day every day. But the more stressed a child is, the harder it is to manage these transitions and they may get stuck in the excessively aroused states.
The idea behind self-control is that if you can develop enough grit, determination, self-discipline, or whatever else you want to call it, you CAN learn how to deal with feelings of discomfort without giving in to them. But if you are constantly trying to keep a lid on your feelings of discomfort so you can “be in control,” then this will eventually take a toll on us – either in our behavior in the moment (perhaps we might lash out, or eat something sugary so we feel better), or may result in a deeper problem in our physical, mental, or emotional well-being. What we really need to do is to recognize when we are going into a hyper-alert mode by recognizing the behavior that indicates this, identify the stressor and take steps to reduce it, reflect on and understand your state of arousal, and figure out what helps you to be calm, rest, and recover.
To back up his statements in this chapter, Dr. Shankar references twenty two books, one book review, and precisely no peer-reviewed journal articles describing original research. His source for the fact that neurochemicals raise heart rate was a book published in 1929.
The premise of self-reg is that self-control is not the answer to children’s problems. We looked at this in our episode on Grit in which we discovered that grittiness may indeed be a useful skill, but it’s unlikely to be the determinant between success and failure. We further elaborated on it when we looked at the Marshmallow Test, which asks children to eat a non-preferred snack now or wait 15 minutes by themselves in a room looking at their favorite snack, before they were allowed to eat it. We found that children’s ability to wait for their favorite snack actually probably was not as important in determining their life outcomes as some other characteristics like how socioeconomically advantaged their family was, which impacts their perception of whether a promised reward will ever actually arrive, and, coincidentally, how much stress they were under during the experiment. If the children were asked to think about or look at something distressing, or were exposed to a loud noise, a strong smell, or a hot, cold, or crowded room, they might not be able to wait as long as they could if they were told how to think about other things to distract themselves while they waited. In essence, by teaching the children how to distract themselves, the researchers were teaching the children how to self-regulate.
I’m actually on board with what Dr. Shanker calls the “process” of self-regulation. The five-step process is:
- read the signs and “reframe” the behaviour;
- recognize the stressors across all five domains of experience – biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and prosocial;
- reduce the stressors and lighten the stress load;
- reflect – enhance stress awareness by becoming aware of what it feels like to be calm and when you’re in fight-or-flight or freeze;
- respond – develop personalized strategies to reduce tension and restore energy by figuring out what brings you back to being calm.
The process actually mirrors a lot of what I try to do as a practitioner of respectful parenting. When we talked with Dr. Claudia Gold a while ago about her book The Silenced Child, we discussed how there really is no such thing as “misbehavior;” there’s just behavior that we might not like. All behavior is trying to tell us something, if we’re willing to listen in the right way, which is the second step of Dr. Shanker’s process – trying to identify the underlying stressor. So is our child acting up because they are tired, hungry, because Daddy has been away all week and they’ve really missed him; because they had to be on “good behavior” at school all day and they just need a release now they’re home. But things start to break down a bit somewhere between steps two and three in the process (recognizing the stressors and reducing the stress load), as far as the research seems to go. I will acknowledge that the literature on this field is vast and I haven’t read all of it. One researcher looked at how many papers have been published on self-regulation over the last 20 years or so and it looks sort of like the hockey stick diagram that shows the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – it just exploded about a decade ago, and now thousands of papers a year are published on this topic. One thing that does seem pretty clear is that the majority of research on stressors is on really serious stressors like poverty and violence, because these have a well-documented impact on children’s ability to self-regulate. If a child is coming from a physically un-safe home, walking through a physically un-safe neighborhood, to a school where they feel physically un-safe( if they are in one of the 19 states that permits corporal punishment in schools, where over 160,000 students who are primarily black, boys, or have disabilities are punished in this way every year), or if they just feel emotionally un-safe with their teacher and/or their peers, then it’s no wonder that they have problems self-regulating.
But the literature on the types of milder potential stressors like a chair being too hard or a label being too scratchy is much more thin on the ground. Dr. Candace Raio at New York University exposed two groups of adults to pictures of snakes; one group was given a mild electric shock on the wrist when they saw the pictures while the control group wasn’t given a shock. All participants were then trained to use a cognitive regulation strategy that involved reappraising their situation, which means thinking about it in a different way that makes it seem less stressful. The next day, participants were randomly assigned to a stress group, where they had to put their arm in an ice bath up to their elbow for 3 minutes, while the control group put their arm in room-temperature water, and then they looked at the pictures of snakes again. Participants rated how stressful it was to have their arm in the water, and the researchers also collected the participants’ saliva at different times during the experiment to measure the cortisol in it, since cortisol is produced when individuals are stressed. This study found that the participants who were stressed by putting their arms in the ice water were unable to use the reappraisal techniques they learned to reduce their fear arousal the second time they looked at the snake pictures, but the participants who put their arms in room temperature water *were* able to use the new techniques to reduce their fear the second time they looked at the snake pictures. This indicates that there may not be much point in teaching cognitive reappraisal strategies to children who are already stressed, since they may not be able to apply what they’ve learned in the future, but another thing I learned was that just the stress of putting your arm in an ice bath is enough to induce a reasonable amount of stress in people.
Dr. Karen Lindquist at the University of North Carolina has shown that hunger can actually be felt as an emotion when a person is having a negative interaction with someone else, but only when the hungry person isn’t explicitly focused on emotions (so if you asked them to pay attention to their emotions then the effect went away). They were more likely to say they were experiencing “hate” and to view the research assistant as judgmental when they were hungry but not focusing on their emotions. Importantly, though, the hungry participants didn’t differ in self-regulation from the participants who weren’t hungry, and this self-regulation didn’t impact how they said they felt and what they thought of the research assistant.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, who did a lot of research debunking the excessive focus on self-esteem that was going on in California in the 1990s, did a study with some colleagues which had undergraduates do some personality tests, and then a research assistant told some of the students that the test results showed they were likely to end up alone in life because they might marry or have several marriages but would be likely to be short-lived, while other students were told that they were the type of person who would be likely to have rewarding relationships throughout life. The students who thought they would end up alone answered significantly fewer questions correctly on an intelligence test; the researchers summarized this finding as “social exclusion feedback produced a substantial decrement in intelligent performance.” And it wasn’t just hearing any bad news that produced this result, because the researchers told some of the students that they would end up alone because of misfortune and accidents, and these students scored as well on the IQ test as those who thought they would have lots of friends. Only the bad feedback specifically related to social exclusion produced a significant drop in intelligence scores. If we extrapolate this to a school situation, we might say that a child who has few friends and maybe who doesn’t get along with the teacher is going to be less able to perform well on academic challenges – although this study didn’t look at self-regulation specifically.
The curious part in all of this is that buried deep in one of these research articles, I found a reference to “regulatory depletion theory.” This is the idea that our brains have a limited ability to process a lot of tasks at the same time that require us to regulate ourselves. One paper showed that children who have a difficult relationship with their parents are more likely to have difficulty paying attention at school. The researchers hypothesized that children who have difficult relationship with tier parents may be “primed” to scan and interpret other challenging settings they encounter for similar threats, and that attention spent processing threats detracts from attention that can be paid to other topics. The relationship with their parents didn’t explain all of the problems paying attention, though, so the researchers believe there are other cognitive factors at play too – perhaps because the parental relationship causes the child to lose sleep, which may cause the attentional problems.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, again, actually published one of the first papers discussing the idea of regulatory depletion theory, although he seems to conflate self-control and self-regulation to a large extent. In one early paper he describes four conducting related experiments: in the first, people who were told to change their emotional response – either positively or negatively – related to an upsetting movie about the impacts of radioactive waste on wildlife were able to squeeze a hand strengthening tool for significantly less time than people who saw the film but were not instructed to change their emotional response.
In the second study, participants were asked to either think about a white bear as much as they could, not think about a white bear, or were not given any special instructions about controlling their thoughts. It turned out that expressing thoughts about a white bear didn’t have any impact on the participants’ willingness to keep trying to solve unsolvable anagrams, but the participants who were told not to think about the bear gave up on the anagrams sooner than either of the other groups.
In the third study, participants were asked to either not think about a white bear or do some moderately difficult math problems, because both of these tasks were considered to be about equally difficult and unpleasant (in their words) but suppressing thoughts about a white bear should involve more self-regulation. Participants in both groups then watched skits from Saturday Night Live and a Robin Wililams stand-up act and were instructed not to laugh, smile, or respond in any way to the videos. The students’ mood was tested and didn’t differ between groups, but participants who had to avoid thinking about the white bear smiled more overall than those who did the math problems, indicating that the participants who had had to regulate their behavior by not thinking about the bear were unable to continue self-regulating when watching the movie.
Finally, the researchers asked participants to write a story about a time when they were able to control their emotions, as well as a time when they were not able to control their emotions. As one might expect, stories that involved feeling tired, stressed, or being drunk, or having other emotions or regulatory demands present, were associated with regulatory failure, while exerting self-control and feelings of calmness were associated with regulatory success.
The researchers’ conclusion after the four studies was that after people exercise self-regulation, they are subsequently less capable off regulating themselves, at least for a short time. They hypothesized that repetitive exertions of self-regulation may lead to fatigue in the short run but may build up strength in the long run and the flip-side may also be true: not exercising self-regulation may lead to less fatigue in the short-term but a decreased ability to self-regulate in the long-term. But I think that Dr. Shanker would argue that these experiments don’t actually describe self-regulation; they describe self-control. The key seems to be that rather than just exert more self-control in a situation, we should recognize why we feel like we need to exert self-control and interrupt the cycle. This is pretty difficult to do in the kinds of studies that Dr. Baumeister does, where he rewards undergraduates for participating in his research by giving them course credit, and where they likely feel as though they have to do exactly what the research assistant says to make sure they get that course credit. But out in the real world, we have the power to change some of the things in our lives that these students found stressful. We can think about a distressing topic for a while if we need to, and then decide to move on when we’re ready. If we know that a particular type of movie will stress us out and doesn’t have any benefit for us, then we don’t have to watch it. Children may be less able to do this in some circumstances because it isn’t necessarily common practice among parents and teachers to try to understand the underlying sources of stress; we tend to tell them “your behavior needs to change” instead. As we noted in the episode on grit, we’re on board with the idea of teaching children to exert self-control because it fits with the Puritan work ethic that founded this country as well as the meritocracy on which it claims to run now, which says that if you try hard enough then you can do anything you like.
So when we’re thinking about what is our role as parents in all of this, it seems to me as though the key is to figure out what are the potential sources of stress for your child, and how much of that stress they can handle, and what, if anything, you should do about that stress. It seems to me that Dr. Shanker is on one rather extreme end of this spectrum, with all of his mentions of stress being caused by things that seem apparently relatively minor. The most comprehensive list of potential stressors that I found in his work is actually one that was generated by students who are taking one of the paid Self-Reg courses; these include strong “city” smells, preholiday buildup, walking into a room to get something and then not being able to remember what it was you came in the room to get, reading social cues, and unfairness. These are most definitely adults thinking about adults’ needs (the stress of internet dating is also on the list), and there’s no effort to understand how applicable they are to children, if at all.
Dr. Shanker does say that ultimately we want to be able to help our child to learn how to self-regulate but in reality it’s probably us who are going to end up cutting the tags out of our child’s clothes and asking the Principal if a softer seat can be procured because the standard school seats are too hard for our child.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University has a website describing toxic stress which says “learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and brought back down to baseline. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems.
The Center goes on to distinguish between three types of stress. A positive stress response is “a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
A Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
And a Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.
In a Q&A section the site goes on to say ask “Is all stress damaging?” the response is: No. The prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can be damaging, but some stress is a normal part of life. Learning how to cope with stress is an important part of development. We do not need to worry about positive stress, which is short-lived, or tolerable stress, which is more serious but is buffered by supportive relationships. However, the constant activation of the body’s stress response systems due to chronic or traumatic experiences in the absence of caring, stable relationships with adults, especially during sensitive periods of early development, can be toxic to brain architecture and other developing organ systems.
So when I read this, I’m looking for mention of clothes labels and hard seats and hunger and fatigue and anything else that we might consider a mild daily stressor, and I’m not seeing it. I did actually write to the Center for the Developing Child to ask about whether there were any circumstances where a combination of mild stressors could build up to impact a child in the same way that a more major stressor might, and unfortunately they didn’t respond.
I had an email conversation with Dr. Jennifer Silvers, who is an Assistant Professor at UCLA and who studies how what leads to differences in emotional regulation between children. She was actually the one who directed me to the studies on stress caused by looking at pictures of snakes and hunger, and she said that “given that these studies are conducted on adults, and children are still developing their ability to self-regulate, I would expect these effects to be larger in them.” I asked her if it’s possible that a piling up of small stressors could have the same effect as a larger, better researched stressors like poverty and violence, and she said “I know this is an unsatisfying answer but I don’t think we can easily say how much stress is too much. That is partially because two children who experience the exact same amount of stress may respond very differently to it. Even in extreme cases not everyone who experience trauma develops serious mental health problems. That said, there is a strong relationship between more stress exposure or more serious stress predicting worse outcomes. We don’t know as much about how mild stress impacts children in the short or long term.” This reiterates a lot of what we learned about in the episode on intergenerational trauma, where we talked about how some people experience extreme violence and distress and go on to be fine, while others experience relatively less stressful situations and have a much more serious reaction. She also mentioned some research done by Dr. Karen Parker at Stanford showing that mild stress can inoculate animals, in a way, and make them more resilient in adulthood which reminded me of the monstrous amount of literature on resiliency that could form at least one episode by itself. This is the flip-side of children who face serious stressors when they are young and become sensitized to acute stress later in their lives, which implies that we’re looking for some Goldilocks-like “just right” amount of stress to increase resilience but not overwhelm the child. We touched on the idea of resilience in our episode on Divorce – and I think I actually owe you the second part of that series – where we looked at what factors can buffer a child from experiencing stress from divorce and what factors increase their experience of stress.
So the hard part for parents, and this is something that Dr. Shanker doesn’t give us much help figuring out, is what is a reasonable amount of stress for a child to tolerate, and what we stress we should try to prevent. There will be some children who cannot tolerate a label itching their neck, and if your child is one of these children then you may well have known this about them for some time. But I suppose it’s possible that there are also some children who cannot tolerate the label but don’t know this about themselves; they just know they’re irritated and they don’t know why. It’s these children that we need to figure out how to help – to help them in regulating their own emotions in the short term, and in transitioning that regulation to themselves in the long-term. I do want to be absolutely clear that we are not trying to reduce *all* stress from children’s lives. Children do need to learn how to understand and manage their own stress and it is not our job to make sure the path before them is completely smooth. If we do that, they’re going to fall flat on their faces when they leave our house and we can no longer do this for them. It may be children who experience severe stressors like poverty and violence who are in the greatest need of our help to address “minor” stressors that pile on top of the major ones.
A paper by Dr. Jamie Gross at Stanford University that reviews the status of current research and potential future directions provides us with some help on HOW to address stressors. Dr. Gross observes that the defining feature of emotion regulation is that the individual sets a goal to change their emotion in some way – sometimes changing the emotion is the end goal; in Dr. Shanker’s terms, we are activating a goal to change our stress level, usually so we can feel less stressed. But stress is not the only emotion we regulate, and just changing the emotion is not always the end goal – for example, sometimes a child might try to appear more interested in a conversation with a teacher (or maybe even a parent) than they really are so a teacher (or parent) will help them with an assignment.
Dr. Gross gives us five strategies that we or our child can use to support us in regulating our (or their) emotions. The first is situation selection, which is among the most forward-looking and success-inducing strategies. Selecting the situation our child finds themselves in makes it more or less likely that they will find ourselves in a situation that helps them to avoid increasing their stress level. So they might avoid a certain group of peers at school who tend to increase their stress level or, I suppose, ask you to cut their labels out of their shirts.
The second is situation modification, which means changing a situation to change its emotional impact. So if our child finds themselves with this group of peers they might decide to turn around and walk away instead of engaging.
The third is attentional deployment, which means once your child finds themselves in a stressful situation, they can take action to change that situation in a way that will change its emotional impact. So once our child finds themselves among this group of peers, they might decide not to pay attention to certain things their peers are saying that typically cause an increase in stress in our child. You might remember from the marshmallow studies that this approach can actually be quite successful.
The fourth strategy is cognitive change, which means shifting your appraisal of a situation to change its emotional impact. Sometimes this cognitive change is applied to an external situation, so a child might say “they’re saying mean things about me, but they’re not really my friends so I shouldn’t listen to what they’re saying.” At other times, cognitive change is applied to an internal situation – so our child might think “My heart is racing right now but rather than just responding to these peers I can use this signal to tell me to do something differently.” One particularly well-studied form of cognitive change is reappraisal. This term has become kind of loosely used at this point to mean anything in the family of cognitive change strategies, including how a person thinks about their capacity to manage situations: for example, our child might think “my peers are trying to get under my skin, but I know that I have techniques I can use so that doesn’t happen.” I should note, though, that Dr. Silvers did a study with both children and adults as participants where the participants were asked to mentally distance themselves from a picture of a stressful situation (like a smaller child about to be hit by a bigger child), and she found that children under about age 10 were not successful at using this strategy to reduce their feelings of stress. She said it did work to some degree in children who were 10 and older, and younger children are able to use the strategy in other situations, for example, when they were reappraising unhealthy food to reduce their craving for it. Her lab is currently planning studies to test the effects of training to see if they can teach children to use these strategies more effectively at younger ages, but for right now it’s possible that this strategy might or might not work in children – although some approaches do work – one meta-analysis of the literature on interventions by researchers and teachers designed to improve self-regulation had small to medium positive effect sizes which means that some interventions to teach these skills to children are quite successful.
So the fifth strategy is response modulation, which means influencing the experiential, behavioral, or physiological components of the emotional response, when the person is in the thick of feeling the emotion. So our child might use deep breathing to alter their physiological response to stress, or perhaps eat a sugary food to change their how they feel. As we’ve seen, trying to inhibit the expression of emotion is one of the best-studied ways of modulating your response, and as you might recall, this has a variety of negative impacts on a person’s ability to perform a whole range of tasks.
Dr. Gross goes on to outline the points in an episode of behavior when it’s possible to intervene to change it. The first of these is the identification stage, when we first feel a new emotion and decide whether or not to regulate it. In some cases this may feel like an automatic process – we are triggered and we get angry. Our challenge is to feel the tiny space there is between the trigger and the anger, and maybe make that space a little bit bigger, which can give us the time we need to decide whether we want to escalate or deescalate a situation. In our child’s case, their challenge may be to identify the emotion in the first place, which is something children may not know how to do. We may be able to support them in developing this capability by pointing out their own emotions as we see them arise, as well as ours, and also emotions of characters in stories. Children may also not fully understand that emotions change often; they may think that because they are angry now they will always be angry. One study showed that people who believe emotions are changeable may be more able to change their emotions. We can help our children to understand this by telling them things like “You’re so angry right now, and I know it feels like you’ll always be angry. Our emotions do change, and you may feel differently about this later on.”
The second step is the selection stage, where we select a strategy from the ones we described – situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, or response modulation. Failures to regulate emotions at this stage may come from our inability to recognize all the potential regulation options open to us – we might rely on the same strategy all the time, or perhaps we just don’t see all the options available in the moment. I would think this is especially difficult for children, who may be even more challenged to evaluate all their potential options quickly in a stressful situation and select one that will work. And as we saw from Dr. Silvers’ work, it might be possible to coach children to use some of these strategies, but it also might not be possible until they get older. We might try to coach them and see if it sticks, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t stick and be willing to gently revisit the topic again in the future rather than exasperatedly saying “why didn’t you just walk away from them like we talked about?”.
In the implementation stage, we take the general strategy (like cognitive change) and translate it into a specific tactics (like saying “my heart is racing right now but I’m not going to hit my classmate; I’m going to walk away”). We might do this for several of the general strategies, and then select the most appropriate tactic to use. Once again, we or our child may struggle with this if we can’t think of any tactics that could work, or we may not implement them well so they don’t work as we hoped they would.
After the implementation stage we may cycle through the stages again as we see the impact of our actions and decide to change these based on how effective they are both at changing our feelings and at changing the situation.
OK, so where do we parents go from here? Well, we can start by looking out for things that seem to be a source of stress for our child, especially patterns of things that seem to be a source of stress. We might choose to withdraw our child from that situation in the short term while we talk with them about how to avoid or manage this stress, but if this is a situation they can’t avoid then pretty soon we need to start talking about how to support them in managing their stress, by changing the situation, modifying the situation, and so on. We also need to look at our own behavior – are we contributing to the stress in some way? Are we modeling appropriate ways of managing stress? (You might want to listen back to my episode on modeling emotion regulation for more on that topic.) This is not to put all the pressure or blame on you, but our children do look to us to understand how we regulate our own emotions, so if I’m telling my child one thing about regulating their own emotions but I use a different approach when I encounter stress, my child may have a hard time learning the lesson I’m trying to teach.
I also think it’s important to note that we don’t want to remove every single potential stressor from our child’s path. There’s a lot of research showing that an optimal amount of challenge is important for people to be interested in learning about and doing tasks, and that optimal amount of challenge is not zero. Too much challenge isn’t good, but too little challenge isn’t good either. The research coming out of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard says that children can even cope with pretty major challenges if they are adequately supported by caring adults in their lives. To do this we need to acknowledge our child’s emotions, rather than dismissing them or being uncomfortable with them, be honest about situations we can’t change (like death) and ones we actually do have the power to change, and how we might go about changing them. But even then, our child may not learn to regulate their emotions as much as we or they might like – Dr. Jenalee Doom of the University of Denver was kind enough to help me think through some of the issues we’ve discussed in this episode and reminded me that the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to regulate emotions, won’t be fully developed until around age 26. But she does say that “children can certainly start developing patterns of behavior starting at a young age so when they experience a negative emotion they have more tools to draw on that they have been practicing.”
We also might not need to do a lot of teaching to support our children in developing emotional regulation. One meta-analysis of 394 studies found that parental warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity predict self-regulation development and may buffer the effects of other serious stressors in the family and environment.
I also want to acknowledge the bigger picture here. The self-regulating child in Dr. Shanker’s book is one who is able to self-regulate their stress, with the apparent goal of sitting still in class and listening to what the teacher says so they can learn what needs to be learned. This is particularly important to you, my listeners, the parents of relatively young children, because self-regulation is seen as one of the key indicators of kindergarten and school readiness. Far fewer teachers care about children being able to count to 20 or knowing the letters of the alphabet but a lot more of them care about whether a child can communicate their needs, whether they can pay attention, not be disruptive, and be sensitive to other children’s feelings. These self-regulation skills are key to whether a child is going to be able to learn the counting and letters down the line. Many children struggle in school because of the emphasis on sitting still and focusing on the teacher for many hours a day, and I was pretty disappointed that Dr. Shanker puts all of the emphasis on teaching students how to reduce their stress levels so they can sit still in school, and really doesn’t even look at how we could make learning situations more appropriate to children with different needs.
So as we wrap up this episode I find myself in a position I’ve never been in before in the 70+ episodes of the show. As a stand-alone book, I would have to say that Self-Reg is not based on enough peer-reviewed evidence to be something that we should pay too much attention to. I still don’t understand what his Mehrit Centre or Self-Reg Institute is doing with all its money, and why it isn’t publishing peer-reviewed original research of its own. But it turns out that there actually *is* research to support the ideas in the book, and if Dr. Shanker had actually cited it then that would have saved me about two weeks of really hard work to locate it myself so I could try to figure this all out for myself and for you. And if there’s one idea I can leave you with, it’s something that Dr. Doom from the University of Denver told me that also reiterates a message that Alfie Kohn has said many times: “our behaviors are just as real as our brains.” So if my child is “acting out” in some way, if I just discipline her for acting out then I’m really missing an enormous opportunity to better understand WHY she is behaving in this way and address the source of the behavior and *help her* to address the source of the behavior. And, of course, we should acknowledge that there is no single reason that explains all of children’s behavior – just because we reduce their stress level doesn’t mean they won’t stop acting out for other reasons – young children are trying to understand their place in the world and part of the way they do that is by testing boundaries.
We should also look at the family dynamic: a now classic paper from 1990 looked at minor parenting stressors like continually cleaning up kids’ messes, sibling arguments, children’s nagging, whining, and complaining, and the like. The study didn’t look at cause and effect, but the researchers did observe that maternal stress might be caused by these kinds of minor parenting hassles, and discussed this in the context of previous research that showed these hassled mothers were more likely to be irritable with their children, and the children were more likely to respond with aggressive behavior. It seems possible to me that children’s stress and parents’ stress creates a kind of feedback loop that reduces the quality of family relationships. If you’ve ever tried to change someone else’s behavior you’ll know how difficult it can be; it’s MUCH easier to change YOUR OWN behavior instead of someone else’s. So if you find yourself in an irritable mood a lot of the time you might consider what you as a family can do to reduce YOUR level of stress, which could have a positive impact on your child’s level of stress.
To me, this working with your child to help them at the same time as looking at yourself and understanding how you need to change is the core of parenting. This is where the rubber hits the road and parenting gets real.
One final thing I did want to mention was that if you’re using rewards to try to get your child to change their behavior, then that’s a key that things might not be working as well as they can be. If you’d like to learn about some different tools to solve some of the kinds of problems that stress can bring about in families, you might want to listen to the interview that I did with Alfie Kohn which talks about WHY using rewards can really undermine the relationship we have with our children, and on the show notes page for that episode you can find a free guide to HOW to move beyond using rewards to try to change your child’s behavior. So head on over and download that at yourparentingmojo.com/rewards. All the references for today’s episode on Self-Reg can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/selfreg.
Also published on Medium.