Emotional Regulation, Part One: What is it and Why is it so Hard?

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Written by Dr Melanie Heyworth

Why talk about emotional regulation?

Something I hear a great deal about in my work with parents of Autistic children is “emotional regulation”. Specifically, parents express how difficult it is for our Autistic children to develop that kind of self-regulation, and how confronting and challenging it is when they struggle to regulate.

I worded that last sentence with particular care.

In many, many cases, I ask parents to understand that what might be “challenging behaviour” for them, is not at all challenging to the young Autistic person for whom they are caring. Stimming is a good example of this concept: it might be challenging to you, as a parent, to have a child who stims verbally, repeating the same sound over and over verbatim with a repetitiveness and invasiveness that is maddening. But it is entirely likely that that stim is the opposite of challenging for your child, providing all manner of soothing and invigorating input to help them navigate their day.

But emotional regulation is different.

Most Autistic children I know (although I am sure there are exceptions to this “rule”) do not “want” to lose control. It is not enjoyable, or soothing, or something which we seek or desire.

Emotional regulation is not something at which we want to “fail”.

Indeed, the labour of emotional regulation, the futility of that labour when our efforts are foiled, and the loss of regulation and control are both challenging and profoundly unpleasant to most Autistics. So, being unsuccessful in regulating our emotions is as intolerable for Autistics, as it is for those around them. More so, I would argue.

What I am saying is that difficulties with emotional regulation are at least as challenging for your Autistic children, as they are for you.

What is emotional regulation?

But what is emotional regulation? What exactly are we asking our Autistic children to do?

At its core, emotional regulation is about exercising control over our emotional reactions to stimuli. It is a process which allows us to register, analyse, assess, control, and express an emotional response that is considered socially appropriate in the context and circumstances.

Our success (or lack thereof) at emotionally regulating is usually judged by our consequent actions (so our external expression of that regulation). Generally we are judged by whether we have taken an action that is appropriate (as deemed by observers) to the triggering emotion, inhibiting an action that is unacceptable or inappropriate to the triggering emotion, or modulating or tempering our reactions to the triggering emotion.

As you might notice, we tend only to judge emotional regulation by its negative presentation, or its lack.

To be fair, it is difficult to “see” a child (or an adult) modulating or tempering a reaction or inhibiting an action unless they communicate that they are doing so explicitly. Really, we only “see” when they fail in their efforts to reduce or moderate their emotional reaction.

And in this way, emotional regulation is often overlooked when done well, and only noted when done poorly.

Or, in other words, since we can’t see emotional regulation at work, we often only draw attention to emotional dysregulation, and ignore any previous efforts to regulate.

Why is emotional regulation so hard?

For the most part, we only explicitly require “emotional regulation” from our children when they have experienced a “big emotion”, or a stressor or trigger. We see the emotional wave rising into a veritable tsunami of passion (positive or negative) in our children, and watch as it crashes down on their self-control, sweeping away any remnants of restraint in the torrent of raw reaction to whatever stimuli has caused the event.

Inside your child’s brain (and our own for that matter), the flood scene is no less dramatic.

Our amygdalae (we all have two) are those parts of the brain that register a potential threat and act accordingly to prime our physical body for fight or flight. For all children, the amygdalae often interpret what might seem (at least to adults) inconsequential or illogical stimuli as threatening.

As parents, we are often tempted to frame our child’s reactions to ostensibly negligible stimuli as an “overreaction” to, or a melodramatic exaggeration of, the stimuli and its potential threat. But our children’s amygdalae are not necessarily misinterpreting a threat. They may not be just “getting it wrong”.

To the amygdalae, they note the stimuli and the accompanying emotional tide, they assess the “big emotions” as considerable and significant (which they are, to our children), and they (quite literally) flood the brain with stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline.

For our Autistic children, the picture is more complex. Research suggests that the amygdalae might have a broader and even more substantial role to play in our Autistic unconscious perception of our social world. During childhood, Autistic children’s amygdalae seem to grow faster than non-autistic children’s, meaning more neurons firing and a greater likelihood for amygdalae activation (that is, the amygdalae “lighting up” and signalling potential danger). Indeed, studies suggest that Autistic amygdalae’s disproportionate stimulation around threat perception may feed into our tendency to experience anxiety disorders.

Now, emotional regulation is easiest to achieve when the frontal lobe region of the brain – the logical and reasonable thinking centre – is active. More specifically, it is likely we (and that is an anybody-type “we”, not an Autistic-specific “we”) will only be able to manage our emotional reactions and impulses, demonstrate a modicum of self-control, and assess the consequences of our actions, when the prefrontal cortex of our brain is functioning.

But the amygdalae are, in effect, efficient bullies, over which we have little control. They are part of the limbic system of the primordial brain network, which is just a fancy way of saying that they are among the oldest parts of the human brain and work predominantly without our conscious awareness or control. Our amygdalae do not want us to emotionally regulate or to control ourselves. Their job is to ensure we do not relax. We must prepare, physiologically, for any necessary action!

And so, along with the flood of cortisol and adrenaline, the amygdalae shut down the neural pathways to our prefrontal cortex. They black out our access to logical reasoning and to emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is not a choice once the amygdalae are stimulated, because those primitive protective mechanisms ensure that it is not.

As we mature, our prefrontal cortex also matures and learns to negotiate with our amygdalae, logically analysing any perceived threat and giving the amygdalae “stand down” orders before things escalate beyond our control, although the success of that mediation depends on many environmental and contextual factors. But, for Autistic people, the connections between our amygdalae and our prefrontal cortex are weak (or, at least, weaker than the connections in non-autistic brains).

That is to say, over the course of our lives, we learn to regulate our emotions.

But as a species, humans are spectacularly slow to mature, and the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop, continuing to learn its place and role in the brain hierarchy well into adulthood. This means that until adulthood and until the prefrontal cortex is fully developed, the amygdalae have an unbalanced influence over our reactions. If the prefrontal cortex is the monarch of the brain, the amygdalae take the place of regent, the appointed governors, until the prefrontal cortex is ready to assume rule.

So, when we ask our children to regulate their emotions, we are, very often, asking them to battle the temporary regent of the brain: we are asking them to fight against the most primitive, instinctive neurological processes, not to mention the plethora of chemicals that our limbic brain has as allies. It is an unfair fight, to say the least.


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh peoples.

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