Mightier helps children develop improved emotion regulation by teaching the brain and body to respond differently under stress. Through a process of repetitive calming during gameplay, children develop an ability to remain in better emotional control from the start, return to a state of calm more automatically, and think and communicate more clearly despite stressful situations in real life.
Emotion Regulation is Hard
There’s a reason why emotion regulation is difficult in the first place, and why we can talk about emotions and coping skills when calm, yet still find ourselves incapable of accessing that information in the moments it’s needed most. This has to do with the brain and body’s instinctual response to stressors. Mightier helps children attain improved emotion regulation abilities by developing automaticity - the ability to perform a task effortlessly and without conscious thought.
How our brains work is tied to our emotional state. The frontal lobe, the area of our brains responsible for things like clear decision making, rational thought, problem solving, predicting consequences, and self-control, functions best when we feel calm. It’s the part of the brain that activates when we sit in a therapy session, talk about emotions and behaviors, think about triggers for anxiety or frustration, and recognize the importance of calming strategies like deep breathing. It’s the same part of the brain we use when we sit at home and calmly plan what we’ll say for an upcoming speech or presentation.
When we experience some sort of stressor - something that makes us feel excited, angry, anxious - our brains begin to work a bit differently. The limbic system activates. The limbic system is the watchtower and control center for the entire body. When the limbic system perceives a threat of any kind - a tiger, a confrontation on the playground, a room full of people staring at us as we make that speech - it jumps into gear. By activating a series of bodily systems, it prepares us to respond. Heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, and our muscles prepare for movement. Quick emotional and behavioral escalations - running, yelling, fighting, shutting down - are signs that the limbic system is asserting its control.
Another big difference between the frontal lobe and the limbic system is their speed. The frontal lobe likes to take its time, be thoughtful, and to really weigh out situations and think carefully about the best course of action. The limbic system, however, needs to act quickly. It relies on habit and muscle memory to do its job. Since the limbic system is crucial to survival in many ways, the human brain has had to make a choice. When under intense stress, the frontal lobe and all its wonderful, thoughtful qualities, must go offline in order for the limbic system to do its job. This is why children who can talk and think about emotions and calming strategies when calm are often unable to intentionally use any of that information under stress. They can’t even access the part of the brain where that information is stored in those moments.
Humans have adapted since we had to escape tigers in the wild. While understanding the tradeoff between these two systems is important, it’s hopeful to know that we’re also built to learn how to respond appropriately in stressful situations (manage conflict without fighting, deliver a speech without freezing). How each of us responds, however, depends on the relationship between the frontal lobe and limbic system. It’s important to understand that the frontal lobe continues to physically grow and develop until a person is about 25 years old. Neurodevelopmental disorders (ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, conduct disorders, impairments in vision and hearing) also impact the frontal lobe’s ability to perform specific tasks. While it’s the limbic system’s job to keep us safe, it’s the frontal lobe’s job to help us regulate and respond appropriately. The relationship and connection between these two systems changes and develops throughout life with experiences and learned behaviors. That means that, regardless of starting point, everyone can develop improved emotion regulation abilities. It just takes practice.
Playing Mightier Builds Automaticity
Here are the steps children take in their Mightier play that add up to improved emotion regulation abilities.
- Play games. While children play Mightier, they are engaged in a gameplay environment that is fun and rewarding in its own right. This is how Mightier engages children in a therapeutic activity.
- Heart rate visibility. Children wear a heart rate monitor while they play Mightier. The monitor connects with the Mightier system, and to a heart rate gauge (the Gizmo) that lives on their screen at all times. This allows children a real-time glimpse of their changing heart rate state.
- Heart rate zones. As children play Mightier, their heart rate will inevitably go up. This could happen because of excitement, frustration, anxiety, or because they’re physically jumping around. We need children’s heart rates to go up while playing as this provides the opportunity to practice bringing it back down.
- Increased challenge + regulation. Practicing regulation strategies during moments of early limbic system activation is key. When a child’s heart rate enters their red zone, the game they’re playing becomes more difficult (inhibitor is activated). This could mean that smoke covers the screen, it’s difficult to steer or aim, or that a timer speeds up. Along with this increased challenge, there are many visual cues to let children know that their heart rate is in the red zone. These things are the prompt and encouragement for children to bring their heart rate down in order to continue to play normally.
- Cooldowns. Cooldowns are the core component for building automaticity. Every time a child brings their heart rate down from an elevated state it is considered a cooldown. Mightier will prompt children to go through this process, and provide various calming strategies (deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, crossing the midline, tracing) for them to follow along with.
- Experimentation is part of learning. Mightier sets a track of some key actions children should take while playing. Exactly how they do that, however, as well as the experimentation process they take along the way is totally up to them. Most children will play around with different ways to get their heart rate down, or test the system to see how far into the red they can push things. Everything they do is part of their learning process, as well as an important step in establishing trust and belief in their own abilities.
- Rewards. Every time a child pauses the game and successfully brings their heart rate back to their blue zone they earn rewards within the Mightier system. This is Mightier’s way of recognizing children’s efforts and abilities. It is also our way of encouraging them to continue going through this cooldown process.
- Repetition. Just like any skill that takes practice in order to become second nature, retraining the brain and body to develop a different automatic response to stressors takes repetition. We recommend children play Mightier for at least 45 minutes a week for at least 90 days.
- Translation. Improvements in emotion regulation take two forms.
- Changes in reactivity. Because children are developing a different automatic process for how their brain and body respond to stressors, caregivers will see improvements in frustration tolerance, intensity of reactions, and recovery speed after getting upset or overwhelmed.
- Awareness and intentional use of skills. Because developing automaticity means, at its core, that children are building up their limbic system’s tolerance to stressors, it means they are also allowing their frontal lobe to stay online for longer during stressful situations. This means that children will be better able to think clearly, communicate their emotional state, and remember to intentionally use calming strategies in real life situations.