Creative Commons CC0/Pixabay
Source: Creative Commons CC0/Pixabay

There is a profound difference between self-regulation and self-control. Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation, reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary. The reason lies deep inside the brain.

If you look inside the brain of a child who is highly aroused, you will see a limbic system lit up in bright shades of red, while there will be only a few splashes of blue in the prefrontal cortex. What this is telling us is that the limbic system—the source of strong emotions and impulses—is driving the car, while the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the home of our rational, reflective selves—is taking a back seat. But calm that child down and the pattern will be reversed: a blue PFC will predominate and there will be a sparse scattering of red in the limbic system.

The latter provides us with a dramatic insight into what happens when the “limbic alarm” is turned off. The brain quickly shifts from what Julian Ford calls “survival mode” to “learning mode.” The sea of blue in the prefrontal cortex is telling us that the systems used to think about one’s actions are fully up-and-running, while the few splashes of red tell us that limbic arousal has been significantly reduced. But which is driving which: that is the vital question.

It might be tempting to see the shift from “survival brain” to “learning brain” in terms of the classic self-control paradigm. That is, in the case of the former, the PFC is simply not “strong enough” to rein in the powerful impulses surging up from the limbic systems. Certainly that’s the way we’ve thought about self-control for the past two-and-a-half millennia, and indeed, it was Plato who first talked about the need for “Reason to rein in appetites and impulses.”

To this day, we continue to think about self-control in terms of exercising some sort of mental effort: an act of will to restrain yourself. But read the writings of the leading experts and you’ll find them talking about “self-control” in terms of “cognitive competencies”: i.e., things like reappraisal, self-distraction or self-soothing, or weighing up the consequences of an action. In other words, “self-control” may be likened in the popular mind to damning up a river that’s in full flood, yet it’s really more a case of diverting the flow of cascading water. But then, these critical “cognitive competencies” rely on the very prefrontal processes that are suppressed when the brain is in “survival mode.”

Imagine your child screaming that he won’t comply with the simplest of requests, or lashing out at you for reasons you truly can’t understand. What has happened here is that his brain has shifted into “survival mode” because his stress load was too great.  His “limbic alarm” is now tripped by the slightest provocation, sending him repeatedly into bouts of fight-or-flight or freeze. This sets off a wave of changes: cardiovascular, of course, but neural as well. His subgenual and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex have powered down, giving free reign to his impulses and strong negative emotions. His attention is focused on the search for threats, real or imaginary. Fear-based thoughts run rampant. His sleep is likely going to be affected and something called anhedonia may set in, deterring him from experiences that are ordinarily a source of pleasure (e.g., exercise). His diurnal cortisol patterns will be disrupted, resulting in early morning fatigue and crabbiness and heightened stress-reactivity throughout the day. And, of course, the resources that he needs to embrace the positive stresses that drive growth is significantly reduced, as his energy is shunted to those processes that over the course of evolution were found to promote survival. That is the whole point of those meddlesome strong emotions and impulses!

It all sounds rather daunting, but what it really comes down to is that we have to rethink some of our most time-honoured assumptions about what children and youth most need from us. So much of the parenting advice that abounds today centers around how to teach children about the consequences of their actions and make these lessons stick; or how to build up a child’s self-control. But what neuroscience is telling us is that kids aren’t going to learn anything from lectures however well-intentioned while they’re in survival brain mode. And what is astonishing is to see just how many children and youth this applies to today. For all of them, you have to turn off their alarm in order for them to hear and absorb what you’re saying, much less think about consequences and have the capacity to choose a different action.

In other words, children are only able to develop and use “cognitive competencies” if their arousal has been reduced; and we accomplish this by identifying and reducing their stressors and soothing rather than badgering the child when he is hyperaroused. In other words, by practicing Self-Reg. What Self-Reg teaches a child is a foundational set of skills: not just how to deal with a deluge when it happens, but more important, how to prevent the deluge in the first place, by recognizing when they are becoming over-stressed and why, and what to do about it.

The implications of this new understanding of the critical importance of self-regulation are far-reaching. To begin with, it speaks to the importance of reframing behaviour: distinguishing between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. For that to be possible we have to know what are the signs of stress behaviour. Once a parent knows what to look for, these cues are every bit as conspicuous as the signs of illness. This will be my topic for the next blog.

This new understanding of the vital importance of self-regulation also tells us that we often talk (or worse) when we should be listening—with our eyes as much as our ears. We punish when we should be soothing. We look angry when we should be softening our eyes and our facial expression. We add to the stress when we should be reducing it. We react when we should reflect: chastise when we should ask “Why?” and more to the point, “Why now?”

So much of what we see around us today—and not just in children’s behaviour!—seems inexplicable until we realize that we are dealing with the effects of excessive stress on limbic arousal and prefrontal functioning. We need to reduce the arousal in order to bring back those reflective capacities: for our own wellbeing as much as for our children’s. Indeed, the two sides of this equation cannot be separated.

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