What is emotion regulation and how can mentors help?


by  Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Haifa

Long ago, psychologists recognized the important role that emotions can play in shaping the quality of our relationships and, more generally, our life courses. Emotions spark the bond between parents and their newborns; they attract romantic partners and they draw us to certain activities and deter us from others. Importantly, emotions can also lead us to falter in our relationships, goals, and aspirations. Although not always recognized, mentors can play a pivotal role in helping young people recognize and regulate their emotions.

Emotion regulation is the capacity to notice and control one’s emotions. People can regulate their emotions by themselves (intrinsic regulation) or through interactions with others (extrinsic regulation). Through a process of learning techniques from other people, extrinsic regulation can become intrinsic. This process can occur with family members (such as parents or siblings), with peers, with teachers, and in mentoring relationships.

We all know that students who have close, enduring mentoring relationships also tend to have higher academic achievement, improved social relationships, and enhanced self-worth. Through the relationship, students grow and learn, and they appear more resilient. When mentors provide practical guidance on how to solve math problems or write an essay, how to fill out a college application, or cope with a romantic relationships, they also provided extrinsic emotion regulation. That is, through help and discussion, mentors provide an outside source for regulation.

Imagine that a mentor is working with a young woman who is struggling to stay on top of her grades because she is easily distracted, often argues with her siblings at night, and has trouble completing studying and her homework. Scholars in the field of emotion regulation have recognized five ways in which people can model and assist with extrinsic regulation that have implications for mentors.

Situation selection-refers to opting in or out of a situation. Mentors can be instrumental in helping mentees select situations that would be preferable – places where mentee can feel safe, complete her work, develop healthy relationships, learn, and grow. However, sometimes, youth do not have the privilege of choosing adaptive situations. In these cases, mentors can help students alter elements of the situation.

Situation modification-refers to helping a young person make the best of their situation. Mentors can help mentees think about characteristics of situations that might engender concentration difficulties, and help her develop strategies to reduce them. For example, the mentor can help her mentee compose a song to aid in memorizing the periodical table, or rearrange the student’s study space to reduce distractions. Mentors can also offer different ways that their mentee can word or frame verbal interactions to decrease negative conflict. Role-playing might be especially helpful in identifying and modifying communication styles and word choice. The other three forms of emotion regulation strategies are more internal to the individual, but can be shaped by the mentor and others nonetheless.

Attentional deployment-By helping mentees focus on certain aspects within a given situation, mentors can influence the mentee’s emotional responses. Suggesting music or meditational techniques that distract one’s attention from external or internal noise are examples of how one can shift their focus. Mentors can also help students focus on positive aspects of a classroom rather than on disliked peers or teachers.

Reappraisal-A slightly different strategy refers to the interpretation one imbues on the situation. Because emotion is tightly related to the appraisal one has of the situation, being able to reappraise the situation in a positive light is especially helpful. Mentors can encourage mentees to re-frame stressful or disappointing situations (such as a bad grade or not being invited to a party), and guide mentees to learn and grow. Perhaps a bad grade signals the need for improved study skills or more effort; maybe not going to a party allows one to focus on studies or develop relationships with another group of friends.

Physical adjustment-The final form of emotion regulation strategy refers to the behavioral, experiential, and physiological experiences of the young person. Many of us take deep breaths to relax when we are nervous (before speech or an exam). This shifts our physiological state from anxiety (short quick breathes) to calm (long deep breathes) by slowing down our nervous system. Such techniques that use actions or behaviors to influence our physiological states can help shift our emotional reactions. Mentors can invite mentees to try out different ways to adjust their physical responses by introducing the mentee or helping them search for different techniques.

Emotions are pivotal in determining young people’s involvement with academics, work, or social life. Through co-regulation of emotions, mentors educate mentees about different ways to adjust emotions, through changing the situation, shifting one’s focus, or physical change. In this sense, mentors are extrinsic emotion regulators, whose strategies and techniques are internalized by the mentee over the course of the relationship.