September 23: Emotional Regulation Strategies for Parents
I’ve been hearing a sentiment recently that I want to address: the idea that parents should never feel anger or frustration towards their children. Essentially, some content written about parenting suggests that children can sense when their parents are frustrated and will react negatively to this emotion, so parents are told that they should not feel upset with their children. I’m oversimplifying, but not by much. The truth is that almost every parent I know is highly motivated to provide a supportive loving presence for their children. And…while most parents aspire to being calm and centered, the reality is that throughout the course of a day or a week most parents are going to experience moments of intense emotion.
I find it unhelpful when parents are advised not to feel certain emotions. I believe that a much more realistic and useful goal is to focus on emotion regulation and to consider strategies parents can use to manage their emotions when a child’s words or behavior trigger feelings of frustration, anger, or distress. Realistically, managing and regulating emotions is a work-in-progress for many children and adults, so let’s talk about some concrete strategies rather than suggesting that parents should not feel some emotions.
One of the most useful tools for managing emotions in a heated moment is to create some space between the incident that triggered your emotions and your reaction. For parents who are visual thinkers, it can be beneficial to picture a timeline or time series: when your child says or does something that makes you feel angry or frustrated, try to consciously pause to create space between your child’s action and your reaction. Depending on the specific situation, if you are able to do so safely, you may want to physically walk away or close your eyes for a moment to create space between action and reaction.
Another powerful tool in a moment of frustration is to use cognitive strategies to re-frame your internal dialogue. Often when parents are engaged in a charged interaction with their child, they may be telling themselves stories that fuel the fire and increase distress. Instead, practice re-framing your self-talk. For example:
“I don’t need to react right away. This is a good time to take a pause.”
“This is a stressful moment but I’m not alone. I can tell _____ [my partner, another family member, my friend] about it later and that will help.”
“I’m a good parent having a tough time. I’m trying my best.”
"I’m going to take 5 slow, deep breaths and re-evaluate.”
“This is an intense moment. I’m going to close my eyes and count to 20 so I can re-set.”
When parents actively use strategies to manage challenging emotions it has the added benefit of modeling emotion regulation for children. If you do raise your voice or feel regret about how you managed your emotions in a tricky moment with your child, remember that part of being human is making mistakes. Once everyone has had an opportunity to calm down and re-group, you can talk with your child about the fact that everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is working on developing skills. You can also provide a model for apologizing and making amends. More on this topic in a future email.
Finally, if you find that your child is struggling with emotional regulation right now, you might want to re-read my post from last September: Supporting Children’s Emotional Regulation.