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Family Dinners and Emotion Regulation (Part 2)

Family Dinners and Emotion Regulation part 2

This feature by Alexander Chapman, PhD, R.Psych is Part 2 of 2 in a series about emotion regulation. In this part, Alex shares how validation and radical acceptance play a role in his nightly family dinner experience.


In the following blog, I discuss the use of DBT emotion regulation skills and some mindfulness and distress tolerance skills to deal with a painful event that occurs daily in my household: Family dinners. Read the beginning of my narrative about DBT emotion regulation skills use in the context of family dinners in his household here. When we left off, I noted that using the skill of mindfulness of current emotion gives me time to get into wise mind.

Before I started to remind myself to use this skill, I would sit and stew and resent the torturous dinner experience and the children who were inflicting it on me. Now, with lots of practice, I step back, get into wise mind, and use effective strategies to steer the experience in a different direction. When my son has his tirades, one strategy that I find particularly effective is validation (both a therapeutic strategy in DBT and an interpersonal effectiveness skill). I don’t always have to agree with what he saying, but if I use validation to convey that some of his thoughts, emotions, and opinions are perfectly understandable, he calms down and (sometimes) listens to our perspectives. Once I’ve gotten into wise mind, another strategy that seems to help is to gently change the topic and start a discussion of some show that we’re watching as a family. Once we get going on that topic, dinner can actually be pretty fun.

After banging our heads against the wall for years, I’m tentatively optimistic in saying that we are starting to learn something. It turns out that many preteen and teenage boys often just don’t want to talk about their day. They’re also learning and forming their opinions about the world and trying out different (and sometimes disturbing) perspectives. We’ve started to find more indirect ways to connect and get a sense of their daily lives (e.g., going for walks, chatting while playing games, etc.). You might be wondering how a psychologist and former social worker (my wife) took so long to learn these things! According to S. Suzuki, I’m probably the “slow horse” in his Zen story, which you can find at this link.

To get to this point, I think we both have had to practice the skill of radical acceptance. We’ve had to practice accepting that dinners are not the way we expected them to be. To really throw ourselves into radical acceptance, it has been crucial to use mindfulness of current emotion to understand the landscape of our reactions to the situation. Otherwise, we’d be trying to accept the unpleasant dinners without fully accepting how we feel about them. Radically accepting the whole landscape of our emotions can also facilitate grieving, which is a common reaction to situations that are drastically different and worse than you had expected them to be. It’s also important to remember that radical acceptance does not mean accepting and then doing nothing about the situation. As we often teach clients, radical acceptance opens the door for change. Once we truly began to radically accept that many of our efforts at the dinner table had become futile, we started to come up with effective ways to connect with our kids.

All this being said, I should admit now that my description of our use of skills above is kind of an idealized version of what I/we sometimes do, not what I always do! It’s hard to use skills and be effective all the time. Remembering how difficult it is to keep up with skills use during our family dinners (which pale in comparison to other stresses in our and others’ lives), it becomes easier to empathize with clients, students and colleagues when they, too, have difficulty staying skillful.

Summary

  • Recurring stressful daily experiences can provide invaluable opportunities to practice and strengthen emotion regulation.
  • Mindfulness of current emotion is an emotion regulation skill that involves mindfully observing the various components of our emotional reactions.
  • Mindfulness of current emotion can help us and our clients to step back from distressing situations, survey the landscape of our emotional reactions, and get into wise mind (one of the DBT mindfulness “states of mind,” in which we access the wisdom of our brains and our emotions and can act intuitively and wisely).
  • Once we are in wise mind, it is easier to act effectively and wisely and to avoid making things worse.
  • Radical acceptance is a DBT distress tolerance skill that can open the door to effective change. Radical acceptance involves completely accepting the reality of our experiences in the present moment (or past moments or experiences).
  • When using the skill of radical acceptance, it can be effective to not just practice accepting the current situation, but also the various aspects of our emotional experiences or reactions.

Want to read more about wisdom in DBT? Read this blog from Randy Wolbert on Finding Wise Mind.


Alexander Chapman, PhD, R.Psych, Professor and Clinical Science Area Coordinator in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University (SFU), is a Registered Psychologist and the President of the DBT Centre of Vancouver. He directs the Personality and Emotion Research Laboratory at SFU, where he studies the role of emotion regulation in BPD, self-harm, impulsivity, and other behavioral problems. Read his full bio here.