Family Dinners and Emotion Regulation (Part 1)

June 7, 2021

This feature by Alexander Chapman, PhD, R.Psych is Part 1 of 2 in a series about emotion regulation. In this first part, Alex begins his narrative about DBT emotion regulation skills use in the context of family dinners in his household.

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.

Our Family Dinners

Before my wife and I had kids, we predicted that family dinners would be a fulfilling experience, replete with emotional connection and bonding. We decided early on that we would all sit down consistently every evening for dinner. I had envisioned the four of us enjoying the magnificent meal I had cooked, chatting away enthusiastically about our days, discussing current events, sharing opinions and parental advice and wisdom with eager and receptive children, and feeling a warm glow of family connection throughout the experience.

This idealized vision couldn’t have been further from the truth. Our two sons are teenagers now, and we still sit down together for every dinner, but that’s about the only way in which my naive vision matches reality. It usually goes as follows: I spend an hour or two making a delicious dinner, my wife and I sit down at the table and wait for the boys (who are in their rooms with the lights off and blinds closed, headphones on, glued to their various electronic devices), to arrive. We try to talk, our conversation intermittently interrupted by efforts to remind, cajole, and threaten the boys with extra chores if they don’t come soon.

They finally arrive after about 5 to 15 minutes, and then the magic happens. My older son asks what’s for dinner and then sits and stares at his food or goes into the kitchen to make himself something else. My younger son eats so quickly that he’s done in 5 minutes and races back upstairs to his room. When we manage to keep him at the table, we ask how his day was at school, and he either says nothing or utters some kind of nonsense syllable or made up word (and no, he’s not psychotic and does not have neurological impairment). My older son says, “Fine, I don’t wanna talk about it!” I ask how his best friend is doing these days, and he looks at me and says, “That’s a weird question. Why are you asking that?” We try to strike up a conversation about current events, and one of my sons goes on a tirade, interrupting the rest of us and espousing values that are diametrically opposed to ours. It feels like we’re having dinner with a certain former U.S. president. Once dinner is thankfully over, my wife and I are shellshocked and wondering how on earth we produced people like this!

As painful as these dinners can be, they also present an opportunity for me to practice the DBT emotion regulation skills that I have been teaching clinicians and clients for many years. Indeed, the universe has given me the gift of an intense, disturbing, daily opportunity to exercise my emotion regulation muscles. Just as I would advise a client, my first step is usually to use the skill of mindfulness of current emotion to step back from and try to understand what emotions I’m feeling while I sit there at the dinner table.

Mindfulness of current emotion involves paying attention to all of the different components of your emotional response, including the physiological, cognitive, and behavioral components. I might start by noticing physical sensations, such as an elevated heart rate, muscle tension, changes in my body temperature, and so forth. Another physiological component of emotions includes action urges, or what emotions make us feel like doing. At times, my action urge is to flee the situation, tell everyone to stop talking, yell, clam up and say nothing, or in more extreme moments, engage in what most people would consider very problematic parenting practices (I usually resist that urge)!

Emotions also come along with a cognitive component, including the types of thoughts, assumptions, and perceptions that we experience during an emotional event. Admittedly, the thoughts that come most readily to my mind are usually negative judgments, and maybe even catastrophic worry about the future of these creatures that we have in our home. Emotions can cue thoughts, and thoughts can amplify emotions. As my frustration increases, I find myself having more judgmental thoughts, and as I have more judgmental thoughts, my frustration continues to increase.

Some of the behavioral components of emotions include body posture, facial expressions, and actions. Although I’m not sure how I look as I sit at the table, I probably don’t look happy. My brow is probably furrowed, my lips thin, my nose crinkled in disgust. My posture is probably not as relaxed as it would be if I were out alone with my wife having a lovely romantic dinner. The actions accompanying my emotion most commonly involve being quiet, trying to convey my opinion or change the topic, or sometimes sitting back and staring into space. I’m reminded of the song, Synchronicity II, by The Police: “Daddy only stares into the distance. There’s only so much more that he can take.”

Notwithstanding, using the skill of mindfulness of current emotion, I find myself stepping back, experiencing and understanding my emotions rather than getting blindsided or acting impulsively on them. By observing the bigger picture of my emotional reactions, I’m also better able to name them. I would say the predominant emotions at the dinner table are probably disappointment/sadness and frustration. Moreover, mindfulness of current emotion gives me time to get into wise mind (a DBT mindfulness skill and “state of mind”), so that what I say and do can either improve the situation or at least not make it worse.

Read here for part 2 of this piece, in which Alex shares how validation and radical acceptance play a role in his nightly family dinner experience. 

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.


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