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Zen & the Art of Self-Regulation

Parenting is a wild ride: it is often referred to as an “emotional roller coaster” for a reason.

There are blissful moments of elevation, followed by jaw clenching drops and whiplash inducing changes in direction. Occasionally there is an abrupt halt - only then to move backwards before starting it all over again.

Parents experience this ride with intensity during the teenage years. It can make us feel queasy, stressed, and moody - ESPECIALLY if you decide to hop on the roller coaster.

So much of parenting younger children involves meeting their core needs and coaching them on the fundamentals required to be a successful adult. The teenage era, however, presents an abrupt shift in the nature of the parent/child relationship.

Teenagers are meant to nudge the boundaries. This critical component of beginning to lead a life independent from parents can be an extremely uncomfortable journey for everyone. One minute you’re teaching them to use a spoon then suddenly (as it feels) they are off driving a car by themselves.

Teenagers, deeply invested in their independence, suddenly find parental rules and guidance tedious and irritating.

The combination of teenage curiosity and impulsiveness accompanies an explosion of pubescent hormones with an underdeveloped frontal lobe. The emotional outlay is … intense.

Enter the roller coaster cue.

About a year ago my kids were experiencing all the NORMAL things that happen during adolescence in the ABNORMAL time of a pandemic.

My ability to stay calm was acutely challenged as I watched my kids struggle. That is until my friend Nina came to the rescue. She passed on the following torch of wisdom, a salient analogy that has served me (and my family) well.


There is an imaginary bench right next to the roller coaster. Take a seat and be a supportive presence. Let the rollercoaster of emotions be their experience - not yours.

I was able to use this analogy as a cue to help me stay calm. It became my go-to tool when seeing my children struggle through moments of emotional intensity. I’d simply tell myself:

“Don’t get on the roller coaster”

I want to share with you 4 reasons WHY I think it works and HOW I believe we can all use this analogy. Parents and non-parents. With our kids, family members, significant others, clients or even strangers.

#1 - The rollercoaster commandment works by cueing co-regulation

(aka calm) during a stress experience.

When it comes to regulating one’s internal state there’s a ‘loop effect’.

A child’s ability to self-regulate is influenced by co-regulation with a caregiver. And a caregiver’s ability to provide a co-regulation experience is dependent on their own ability to self-regulate.

In a nutshell, a parent who sits calmly on the bench is emotionally anchoring to the teenager on the roller coaster.

#2 - It facilitates problem-solving to learn self-regulation

When adults react with equal intensity to the emotional volatility of a teenager (moodiness, sadness, rebellion), we inadvertently inhibit kids from having the experience of problem-solving and learning how to complete their stress cycle.

Being a supportive bystander sometimes includes suggesting solutions: but often with teenagers, not getting overly involved is best. Providing a steady presence and further help as needed helps teens feel empowered to navigate problems, emotions, and life independently.

As a parent, releasing control (and the stress that it causes) reinforces a caregiver’s own ability to regulate.

Two tickets for the price of one!

#3 - Feelings and skills strengthen through repetition

A few months ago, I shared the roller coaster analogy with another stressed parent. Their response was dismissive; “Easier said than done”

“Of course,” I said as I visualized myself sitting down on the park bench next to her roller coaster.

It isn’t easy.

Managing emotional distress, like most worthy life skills, requires practice.

Confidence is rooted in competence. The world would benefit from collective competence in self-regulation.

#4 - Offering a different kind of presence

We tend to believe proper support entails physical contact and impeccable listening skills. The truth is, not everyone wants to be touched and no one likes to be forced to talk. This can be particularly true of teenagers.

I initially thought the roller coaster analogy helped because I was able to dissociate from their experience. Over time I realized the benefit was more that staying calm simply felt better. It allowed me to practice presence without judgement or fear, and to model a levelness that helped my children regulate themselves. No one does well when everyone is spinning emotionally.

sit > spin

Adolescents want and need your CALM presence – like right over there on that bench (or mountain top) will be fine – more than your physical presence.

All of us need this.

Everyone can relate to being affected by someone else’s stress. A loved one’s depression, a co-worker’s anger, or a patient’s pain flare-up. The rollercoaster commandment has broad applications to many emotionally stressful experiences.

Being present on the sideline creates a supportive presence in a non-judgmental fashion.

There are numerous ways to manage stress. Recommendations often include diet, sleep, meditation, and exercise, all of which are important. This post gives you something different: a simple cue to help manage the internal immediate reaction to stress with the goal of self-regulation.

I’ve experienced puberty 3 times. The first time was many moons ago and the last two were recent. In fact, we aren’t out of the woods: I have a 16 and a 13 year old. The roller coaster is embedded in my current chapter.

We learn how to self-regulate emotions through the modeling and experiencing of calm. Ideally this happens in our childhood though life can give us many opportunities. Puberty during the pandemic certainly gave me that.

And I still need reminders.

Photo crews: Olav Rotne from Unsplash and yours truly from Cedar point trip

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