Opening the Windows of Emotional Capacity

By Ashly Ash, Board Member

It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon and time for Melissa to get off the bus. She is in second grade this year and growing up faster than I ever imagined she would! As I sit here feeling guilty about how the morning went I hear the rolling stop of bus wheels and moments later the pitter-patter of small feet running up the front steps. Everything inside of me tenses. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with her!

I woke Melissa up for school and she hopped right out of bed with a smile and a yawn. She seemed excited to begin another day and we sailed right through the standard morning routine. Right as I opened the door for us to step outside to catch the bus she threw herself on the floor screaming and crying. “I don’t WANT to GO! NO! Mommy, NO!," 

Melissa was suddenly hysterical and curled into a ball holding her face and hiding her eyes. 

"Ugh," I had thought, "RIGHT NOW?" After I glanced at the clock I realized I would now be late for a meeting with the chief operating officer. Scheduled months ago, this meeting held high stakes for my team. Urgently, I squat down next to Melissa hoping my skirt doesn’t split and my heels don’t twist.

“C’mon, Melissa, it’s ok! You like school! It will be over before you know it!”

After several minutes of this pleading, the only response I got was when Melissa rolled over onto her back and started kicking the floor, wailing even louder.

I was going to be late, my bonus was at stake (a bonus I had every intention of using for a family trip), and my very job could be on the line.

“Melissa, get UP NOW. You are acting like a baby. Get out the door.” I try directing her but still no response or obedience at all! The nerve of this child! Knowing full well that this is an important day for me!

“Whatever is bothering you we can talk about when you get home. You need to get up because Mommy has a very important meeting.”

Melissa suddenly changed from thrashing about to being very still. Her wailing transitioned to deep sobbing from the very depths of her being. Her cries at this point are so deep and desperate--and I can hear that--but this is NOT the time to deal with whatever child problems she thinks she has. By now I am truly fed up, if she doesn’t catch that bus I’m going to have to take her to school and will be even more late. 

Frustration simply overrules and I bend over, scoop her up like a surf board and carry her out the door and down to the bus stop. She kicks and cries harder but I set her down and force her to be quiet and then board the bus. I feel guilty about how I treated her but what else was I supposed to do? She wouldn’t stop and the consequences of her behavior would have more impact than having her feelings a little hurt. I’m sure by the end of the day she won’t even remember!

Going Deeper

Let’s take a look at what is going on here with Melissa and her Mom. It seemed like Melissa had a sudden meltdown and that she was deliberately misbehaving on purpose for no reason, didn’t it?

Everyone has what Discovering MErcy refers to as a “window of tolerance.” This is a personal range of limits individuals have and in this range people process internal and external stimuli (events, sounds, sights, words, etc.). There are times that people become overwhelmed and when that happens they push past the boundaries of their window of capacity is. So if people can no longer process, what happens?

The second that people max out our window of capacity they are in a state of dysregulation. Our brains are designed to kick in when we are overwhelmed and it happens to everyone at times. When we hit dysregulation, our brains take over and subconsciously tell our nervous system, “Wake up! DANGER! There is overload, we can’t handle one more thing! ALERT! An enemy is here somewhere! Protect yourself!”

This pushes people into a posture of defense – guarding themselves, feeling afraid because they know they are overwhelmed, and suddenly anything that is not in agreement with them is an enemy.

Responding to Dysregulation

People respond during dysregulation in one of two ways.

1) The first is hyper-arousal: responding in external, active, and verbal ways. During hyper-arousal the heart races, we stand to “fight,” we become angry and defensive. Melissa was hyper-aroused in this article and so was her mother, creating a spiral. When Melissa responded from overwhelm, her mother went into dysregulation fearing tardiness and income loss, while her drive to control the situation made her think Melissa was acting disobediently or maliciously as (the enemy).” Likewise, to Melissa (during hyper-arousal, not knowing how to handle her feelings), her mother became like an enemy to her, too. Forcing her on the bus and not addressing her emotions simply tells Melissa’s subconscious that next time she would need to do more for her mother to “get it”and help her.

2) The second is hypo-arousal, when we hit the “freeze” instinct and we respond by withdrawing, becoming inactive, not responding, dazing out. Let’s look at a  situation in hypo-arousal. The bus is coming, mom is going to be late for her meeting, and she walks in to find Melissa sitting on the edge of the tub staring at a toy sailboat, soap bubbles spilled all over the tub and finger drawings in them. She had instructions to brush her teeth and dress that she did not follow. Melissa isn’t being deliberately disobedient. She is in the same emotional state as Melissa, except instead of being hyper-aroused (external) she is hypo-aroused (internal).

This mom enters and sits next to Melissa. “The school thing is a lot right now. It can be really overwhelming with good and bad things. That is tough. Sometimes when things seem too much to me it helps if I plan some time doing something fun. Tonight do you want to rake leaves and jump in together?” She receives the calm her mom imparts and nods, but also glances back at the toy. Mom says, “I want to hear all about school tonight, Melissa. You are very smart and brave and it is normal to feel like this.” Melissa engages at this point and moves out of hypo-arousal.

The Mom in Melissa's situation ignored the behavior and connected with the heart of the child. She shared her calm with Melissa who, even though she was sitting quietly, was very upset on the inside.

Recognizing the signs of dysregulation in our children, ourselves, and observing the way we typically respond (hypo or hyper-arousal) will equip us with a way to respond NOT in fear as Melissa’s mom did, but out of LOVE in the way Melissa's mom did. Behavior we see, whether an adult or a child is only an indicator the heart needs help. It is not an attack on us or a deliberate rebellion, it is in fact a cry for mercy.


If you could use assistance in understanding your window of tolerance, please see our Getting Started section. 

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