If I’m Not Happy, Nobody Is: Outsourcing Emotional Regulation

How to Coregulate for emotional regulation in parenting infographic

What is Emotion Regulation?  

Emotional regulation is a critical aspect of leading a functional life. It allows us to balance feelings with logic and reason and is essential to positive relationships. It is also a foundational piece in developing empathy and the ability to balance needs and wants. 

How Can We Outsource Emotional Regulation? 

Outsourcing emotional regulation is when we depend on others, the environment, attention, or achievement to regulate our emotional state.  Although all these factors affect our mood, when we become dependent on outside factors, we cannot regulate effectively. For example, suppose one’s mood becomes dependent on the actions or feelings of another person. In that case, we have outsourced our emotional regulation to that person, most likely without their consent. 

Why is Outsourcing Emotional Regulation Problematic? 

If our emotional state is dependent on how others act, we encourage or direct them to meet our needs rather than their own. We delude ourselves into thinking we are looking out for their best interest, but the reality is we are seeking our interest. Many times, we expect people we have never met to predict and cater to our needs. By doing this, we cannot build an effective relationship, and it inhibits our ability to empathize, connect, or attune to others. When the attempt to influence or inspire others fails, we try to control them. These attempts are often met with resistance, creating polarization: People who act, feel, think as we wish are good; those that don’t are bad. We may change the tactics (i.e., scolding instead of bribing) we use to manipulate, but not the underlying need for control.  

Emotional Regulation in Families 

As parents, when we try to control our child’s mood by constantly altering the environment to suit them, interfering with their relationships, being overly demanding, or enabling, we are encouraging them to outsource their emotional regulation to us. But, in an ironic twist, we are also outsourcing our emotional regulation to them. The deal is this: I will make you happy because I don’t have to worry when you are happy. Thus, the parent takes on the burden of making their child happy, and the child takes on the burden of the parent’s anxiety.  

Parents are tasked with providing an environment that is physically and emotionally safe. A safe environment is not free of challenges but instead encourages our children to develop resiliency and problem-solving while practicing emotional regulation. Conversely, unsafe environments undermine resiliency and problem-solving. Parents can create an unsafe environment by being overly emotional and acting out inappropriately, including screaming, yelling, guilt-tripping, silent treatment, avoiding, and enabling. As a result, children become overwhelmed and resort to trauma-based reactions of running, fighting, freezing, or submitting. 

Coregulation 

Parents work with children to coregulate their emotions. Coregulation involves teaching how to identify emotional states, effective emotional expression, effective coping skills, problem-solving, and importantly how to tolerate distressful feelings. To help children coregulate, parents can listen, talk, teach, and coach, and both parents and children practicing boundaries. Parents then set limits on behaviors rather than thoughts or feelings, encourage a wide range of emotions, and accept the value of each.