"I find I’m already 10 steps into reacting and I’ve headed down the “traditional” path with whatever issue is at hand with my kids. When I can remain calm, it certainly helps the situation as opposed to when I get heated up and emotional, which only makes things worse. It makes me sad to know that until now, I have not been a good example of emotional regulation at all. And it's so disheartening to see my kids doing things that I know they saw us do....throw something, slam a door...."
Sounds familiar, right? Regulating our emotions is at the heart of our ability to parent the way we’d like. In fact, it’s at the heart of most of the ways we trip ourselves up, from over-eating to procrastinating to fighting with our spouse.
As parents, we know it’s our responsibility to provide for our child’s physical needs: food, shelter, protection. What about our responsibility to parent from a state of love? We often hear that good parents love their children unconditionally, but we all know that no parent always feels loving. So we’re left on our own to figure out how we can restore ourselves to a state of love during the inevitable ups and downs of daily parenting.
This task—regulating our own emotions so that we can offer loving guidance rather than anger to our children—is fundamental to good parenting. But it's not just good for our kids. This inner work is what allows us to grow into our own full potential.
Is it hard? Yes. I think it's the hardest work any of us will ever do. But it's completely possible. Here's the secret.
When you let yourself experience your emotions, they dissipate. So by simply sitting with your upsets—breathing and feeling but resisting the urge to act—you clear out your own feelings of frustration, disconnection and unhappiness. Love rushes in.
What about anger? That's just a defensive reaction to fear, pain, and grief. Once you let yourself feel the more vulnerable emotions under your anger, they'll evaporate—and so will your anger.
You might even say this process transmutes fear, pain, and grief into love, because we're creating love where there wasn’t love before. Our hearts get bigger, and we grow as people, as well as parents.
Does that mean we don't address what's bothering us about our child? No. In fact, we become more effective in creating the life we want, which is always a life of more happiness, joy, and loving connection with our child.
That isn't just a fancy way of saying that we become willing to tolerate something that we may have yelled about before, although that may be true. For instance, we may realize that it's okay for our child to feel angry, and stop reprimanding him for that, even as we teach respectful interaction. Or we may realize that her jacket on the floor isn't nearly as important as how she treats her sister. Or we may begin to see our child's strong will as a positive trait, and find better ways to partner with her. None of these positive responses is possible if we don't start by managing our own emotions.
But what if our child is stuck in a counter-productive pattern and really does need to change? Our own emotional self-regulation is also the key to helping him.
1. Children learn emotional regulation from us. If we go into "fight or flight" so will they. If we can stay calm, they learn that it's not an emergency, and they calm down.
2. The emotional safety we create for our children is exactly what allows them to heal, grow and thrive. Like us, children WANT to feel happy and connected, but sometimes their fear or anger gets the best of them. Our calm gives them a path back to loving connection.
3. When we provide a calm "holding environment" for our children, they feel safe enough to experience their emotions, which is what allows those big feelings to evaporate. Kids learn that feelings are just part of being human, and we don't have to fear them OR act on them.
4. Children are sensitive barometers of our moods and tensions. If we have an unresolved issue, we can count on them to subconsciously pick up on it and act out. So very often, when we work on our own issues, we find that our child's behavior changes.
5. When we show up differently, so does our child. Remember, it's always your child's action + your reaction that produces the outcome.
The good news is, even if our children have learned some counter-productive habits, it's never too late for them to learn to manage themselves emotionally. The key is our role-modeling.
Learning to regulate our emotions is a lifelong journey. For today, just notice your own moods and feelings. Breathe through them, but don't act until you're calm. Every time you do this, you're actually rewiring your brain...and creating changes in your future behavior.
I guarantee you'll see your child change, too.