How to use Mirror Neurons to achieve Emotional Regulation
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
As part of Raising Resilience's series on Executive Functioning Skills, we are sharing highlights from our recent CONNECTIONS CAFÉ session with The Guidance Team. This post summarizes Marcee Ben-Menachem's section on self-regulation – what it is; what dysregulation looks like during the elementary school and high school years; and how using mirror neurons can help kids regulate. This piece can also be found at Seattle's Child: Perspective | How to use mirror neurons to help kids learn emotional regulation | Seattle's Child (seattleschild.com)
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL REGULATION?
Regulation is not about getting rid of an uncomfortable feeling. It is the ability to be WITH an uncomfortable feeling and still be OK.
The American Psychological Association defines self-regulation as ”the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions.”
When you shift your perspective on this, it starts to become clear that “All behavior is an attempt at regulation.” — Lisa Dion
However, before a child can productively regulate their own emotions they need the process modeled to them. More so, they need the process implemented for them and that is where mirror neurons come into play. A parent or caregiver can use their own regulation to balance their child's emotional state.
“The mind’s ability to regulate emotional processes is essentially the ability of the brain to modulate the flow of arousal and activation throughout its circuits.” - Dan Siegel
WHAT DOES DYSREGULATION LOOK LIKE?
Ages 5-12: Dysregulation looks like arguing, resisting, shutting down, aggression with peers or family members, nervousness, refusal, and anxiety, etc.
Ages 13-19: Dysregulation looks like refusing to engage, risky behavior, arguing with authority/picking fights, physical aggression, fears, depressive withdrawn behavior, etc.
HOW CAN WE HELP OUR KIDS REGULATE?
We can use MIRROR NEURONS
As caregivers, one of the most important things we can do to help our children learn to regulate is to authentically name OUR OWN internal state out loud and model our own regulation. We instinctively regulate through one another using the mirror neuron system.
"Mirror neuron system is a group of specialized neurons that “mirrors” the actions and behavior of others. The involvement of mirror neuron system (MNS) is implicated in neurocognitive functions (social cognition, language, empathy, theory of mind) and neuropsychiatric disorders. MNS discovery is considered to be the most important landmark in neuroscience research during the last decade." Source: Mirror neuron system (nih.gov)
Here's how you can help your child when they’re dysregulated:
Be authentic. NO FAKING
Connect with yourself.
How do you know you are feeling triggered? Are you tense? Are you shaky, hot, numb? Is your heart racing?
Label your own feeling or sensation out loud.
“I’m feeling scared right now.” or “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” or “my heart is racing.”
Model through regulating yourself.
Remember to be real. This is NOT role playing.
“We are hard-wired to perceive the mind of another being.” — Dr. Dan Siegel
WHAT NOT TO DO
When your child is dysregulated they are less likely to effectively process what you are saying because their prefrontal cortex is off-line. Try to avoid labeling or stating your child’s emotions or sensations or telling your child what to do to calm down. It doesn't hurt to try these things, just don't expect them to process it and use the skill in that moment.
WHAT TO DO
Use strategies to integrate your brain into a wise-mind state, as coined by Dr. Marsha Linehan. The wise mind is where the emotional mind and the reasonable mind intersect. Here are some activities you can do proactively in response to a dysregulated state:
Rub arms or legs
Get up and walk (pacing is good)
Shake out your hands
Rock/sway back and forth
Take a bath
Read a book
Go outside and breath
Splash water on your face
Get a glass of water or tea
Drink through a straw
March through transitions
Be silly through transitions
Use a fidget toy
Jump on a trampoline
Do something creative
For a deeper understanding and more hands-on tips, you can view the slides from our CONNECTIONS CAFÉ: Executive Functioning Skills session
For information about upcoming CONNECTIONS CAFÉ sessions, subscribe to our email newsletter.
This post summarizes Marcee Ben-Menachem's self-regulation portion from a presentation by the The Guidance Team - Shealeen Kennedy, M.Ed, BCBA, LBA (Building Blocks NW) and Marcee Ben-Menachem, M.Ed., NBCT, LMHCA (Compass