The Teacup Overfloweth

The first step in helping a child to regulate is finding a calm, regulated place within ourselves. We need to tolerate our OWN distress in order to help our child. The image below is a metaphor for the difference between an adult’s and a child’s capacity to tolerate distress.

As parents, our capacity to manage stress is like the larger tea cup on the right. While we have a large cup, if it becomes too full, a tiny amount will cause the cup to overflow. If we can monitor our own stress level, we can take steps to manage our distress and create space in our cups.

A child’s cup (image on the left) is much smaller. Children have a much lower distress tolerance and haven’t learned how to empty their own cups. They easily become overwhelmed and their cups overflow. One of the safest and most natural ways that children create space in their tiny cups is by pouring their contents into their parents’ cups. Parents act as safe receptacles for a child’s overflowing distress, but only if the parent’s teacup has enough space to hold the child’s. 

As parents, we must continually monitor the capacity of our teacups so that children have a safe container for their  overwhelming feelings and aren’t left to manage on their own.

*Adapted from the teachings of Alicia Lieberman, PhD, Patricia Van Horn, PhD, and Chandra Ghosh Ippen,  developers of Child Parent Psychotherapy

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