After Separation


Parenting After Separation Module Three:

Emotional Regulation



Emotional Resilience: Video Transcript

In the last session we talked about how children, including teenagers, do not process information about a family breakup with the logical, reasoning part of their brain, but instead they process the information with their limbic system which:

  • is the seat of their emotions
  • is not primarily affected by words

It is the part of the brain which will decide whether they can survive the family breakup or not.

No child is built with the capacity for parents to separate from them. Before the age of twelve it is very traumatic because there is limited ability to not blame themselves.

From the age of about twelve or thirteen children are naturally programmed to separate away from us; and they show this by choosing their own hairstyle, clothes, music, friends. etc … they will look and explore and experiment.

They take risks and practice risky behaviours because they are trying to find out who they are. This can be a tricky time for them…and us(!) but one that we are all programmed to do in a safe environment.

But when the family breaks down the pursuit of independence becomes less a natural choice and more a necessity for survival. As a consequence the emotional regulation and resilience that a child normally has to process things that impact them can be swept aside and it is now like a spaceship without a force field…they are much more open to be damaged by the challenges of life.

So what are the emotional regulations that can be swept aside ?

These include:

Paying attention
Assessing risky behaviour
Planning ahead
Social skills
Impulse control
Control of their own emotions

So we may see that our children seem to go backwards in age, and act more childishly than they used to. It may be helpful to think of your 15 year old as a 12 year old, or an 8 year old as a 4 year old.

Unreasonable behaviours may reemerge as your children have to re-establish a core belief of their young lives in the light that a person who they thought loved them is no longer with them. They will test the core belief “AM I REALLY LOVED?”.

From a child’s perspective the easiest way to find out if they are loved is to make themselves difficult to love, often to see if you really do love them (i.e.accuse, shout, challenge, act up) and then see how you react.

It’s unconscious.

So we have to react as well as we can as often as we can ( many times we won’t get this right)…but the child is looking for an overall impression, not perfect humanity.

So when you get it wrong, acknowledge it, apologise, and commit to try harder.

At the same time you will need to help them manage their emotions just as you did when they were younger. It won’t take as long this time because core principles and understanding are there…but because their attachment has been rocked they will not be able to process as easily through their frontal cortex as well as they had previously.

So you will have to work together again to build:

Anger/emotional regulation
Conflict management
Problem solving
Managing stress
Making time for fun and relaxation

To recap:

Their emotional understanding of the world has been re-written.

This will shake their sense of being loved and secure.

Both parents have to work together to rebuild this…and it will take a lot of work over a long time.

We have to be prepared to absorb a fair amount of pain…which is incredibly hard when you are most likely to be suffering greatly already.

Tough times…but this is a long game with consequences that work out over many years for them, for you, and for your relationship together. And this is how we get it right.