The past weeks my two year-old son has had a nasty cold, which resulted in many sleepless nights—for all of us. One evening, I was trying to help him fall asleep. Nothing I did was working, and he was exhausted. I, too, felt exhausted. I also felt frustrated. Not at my son per se. No, it was a more overarching frustration about the lack of control I was feeling. Suddenly, I was acutely aware of all of the stressors of coping with a pandemic for over a year (which I am usually able to put a positive spin on, on my more energetic days). I wished that I could have a break: From being a mom, perhaps, but mainly from the “new normal.”
That is why I had to laugh when the next morning I saw a news article about the decision of Oudertelefoon (Parents Telephone) to add a new function to its helpline for parents: a “scream function.” Now, parents can call and simply scream into the phone, with metal music blasting in the background. According to the director of the helpline, many parents call not to have a conversation, but rather to vent their frustration.
As the coordinator of the course Self-Regulation (Master of Health and Social Psychology), I know a few things about emotion regulation. Classic research by psychologist Brad Bushman shows that coping with negative emotions by venting anger and engaging in aggressive actions—such as hitting a pillow or a punching bag—actually leads to increased negative emotions. According to Bushman, “venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it only feeds the flame.”
Bushman’s research has shown that distraction, or even doing nothing at all, are more effective alternatives to venting. But Oudertelefoon has introduced a second new function that may be even better: a “meditation function,” whereby parents can do meditation and other mindfulness-based exercises on the line. Here, the research is more promising, with several studies supporting the usefulness of mindfulness-based activities to cope with negative emotions and foster healthy emotion regulation, for example in comparison to suppressing emotions or doing nothing at all.
At the end of the day, what is a parent (and anyone experiencing negative emotions these days) supposed to do? Based on the research, I should practice meditation, but how will I find the time and energy to incorporate mindfulness exercises into my already-overfull day? As fun as the scream function sounds, I don’t think it’s for me, either, and certainly won’t make me feel better. Instead, I will zoom in on Bushman’s finding that distraction is a decent option, too. So, please excuse me while I go and escape to my dream island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at fhe faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience