Containing the Emotional Dysregulation


Imagine on your desk there is a glass of water almost full to the brim. Your secretary comes in and starts to pour more water into the glass; you immediately feel anxious. Does she not see that it’s almost full already? Is she not going to stop? It can’t take any more…. The water is going to overflow, soaking everything on your desk.

Being emotionally dysregulated is when that glass overflows. We are flooded with uncontrollable emotional reactions; we are ‘dys’-regulated. There is only so much capacity a person has to hold difficult emotions. Every time emotion is expressed by others around us, our glass fills up a little bit. In a stressed situation, there is insufficient opportunity for the water to be emptied in a healthy, renewing way. So the glass continues to fill up, little by little until it doesn’t take much more for it to overflow.

My suggestion is that, right now, the glass of the UK population is pretty full. You might recognise that the same is true of the glass of your colleagues in the staff room. You might recognise that it’s true of the parents attending your open days, or parent’s evenings. You might recognise it in yourself.

In a position of leadership, your role is to have capacity to hold the water that others cannot contain.

What do I mean by that?

One of the ways that we ‘contain’ others’ emotions is to ‘mirror back’ their emotional state. Studies have shown that when a parent of a distressed child mirrors back to the child their emotional state, in a managed way, the child’s distress reduces.

For example, if a child is really angry about something they feel is unfair, mirroring back this emotion would involve saying ‘I can see you are really angry with me right now. You feel it is completely unfair that I won’t allow you to do X. You are very very cross with daddy.’ The mirroring is not just in words, but tone; saying these words with a passion, feeling which mirrors the emotional intensity of the child.

When a parent does this, the ‘emotional hijack’ within the brain of the child starts to reduce. Their neurochemical flood of cortisol and adrenalin starts to lower. Psychologically the child no longer experiences themselves as alone; they experience you as available and themselves as contained and accompanied.

They also experience that the powerful emotion overwhelming them, is not big enough to overwhelm you. You are bigger than the biggest thing they are experiencing. And therefore, they are safe. This is hugely reassuring and has a direct and immediate neurochemical effect.

Notice, that in this psycho-drama, no solution has been given to the complaint; no concession has been made. All that has happened, is that the emotional state of the child has been mirrored back; it has been held. Your glass has proved big enough to contain their overflowing water.

Let’s apply this to our leadership of a collectively stressed population- maybe of colleagues, maybe pupils, maybe governors, maybe parents….

Practically, we can do this by articulating and echoing-back the anxieties which people are feeling. For example, create opportunities to articulate how you suspect people may be feeling about the pension situation; articulate the fears many have about the economy; articulate the fears some have about the sector.

Voicing rather than hiding reduces anxiety, reassures we are not alone and symbolises that the challenge, whilst big, is not overwhelming. Once dys-regulation has been contained, you can then start to signpost how the road ahead can be steered.

How does STEER’s AS Tracking help you achieve this with your pupils?

Your AS Tracking data will identify individuals within your school who are at risk of dysregulating. The AS Tracking Action Plan tool will guide your colleagues with the messages, activities and opportunities to reduce those risks and improve their self-regulation on the school road.