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Parenting Requires Self-Regulation

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Have you ever had a boss who made you so mad that you had fantasies about their comeuppance? Of course you have. Did your parents ever exhaust you with their neuroses and lead you to say things in a way you wish you had tempered? I know they did. What about your children? Have they ever gotten on your last nerve and you couldn't hold back your annoyance? If you say they haven't, I want to see your stigmata.

We all have experiences of high emotion, followed by thoughts of carrying out those emotions. Those of us who have navigated this life successfully have—most of the time—kept those thoughts in our heads and held back. Every once in a while, I hear someone say that they "don't hold back." They "tell it like it is." With them, it's "no holds barred." They "shoot straight from the hip." They—well, you get the picture.

I'm convinced that, if a person really just said and did whatever came to mind without regard to other peoples' feelings, rights, boundaries, and safety, that person would be a recluse, in prison, or dead. Living in a society, and valuing what that society does for us in terms of letting the group live in relative peace, requires that at least some holds have to be barred. You can't tell off your boss if you want to keep your job. You can't vomit your childhood resentments all over your parents if you want the relationship to stay intact.

Yet, some parents don't recognize that their words and actions toward their children can have the same devastating effects as they would against the adults in their lives. It hasn't quite clicked that their children are human beings, with feelings and memories of those feelings that last. In fact, children are far more sensitive than the adults to whom we defer. The fact that they don't have power to enact consequences against us masks the damage we can do to them.

On the flip side, our words and actions, delivered with kindness and respect (though still recognizing boundaries and insisting on expectations), can create positive feelings and memories of those feelings that will give them strength, confidence, and compassion when they get older.

Of all the skills you can learn in parenting classes and from parenting books, one of the most important is this skill of holding back, taking a breath, delivering your messages and instructions in ways that will leave a lasting influence that is positive. This skill is called "self-regulation" and it "refers to parents having the skills they need to self-monitor and adapt their own attributions and behavior and to be independent problem-solvers.

There are generally five key elements to self-regulation:

  1. The self-sufficiency to "parent confidently and effectively with minimal support."
  2. The self-efficacy to believe that they can change and handle parenting in a positive way.
  3. The ability to self-manage and use words and behaviors wisely so that they match their goals for themselves and their children.
  4. A sense of personal agency that allows them to give themselves credit for their parenting and their child's good behavior, and finally...
  5. The ability to do problem-solving. Effective "parents can define a problem, identify potential solutions, develop a plan, execute it and track its success, and revise the plan as required."

In my years as a parenting writer and counselor, I've heard many critiques of this message of positive parenting. Most of them suggest that, if you're too kind to your children, they'll turn out to be jerks. To me, this is as nonsensical as saying that, if you make your dinner with the best ingredients, you'll end up with something that tastes like dog food. Put into your child's head the softly spoken compliment, the kindly delivered redirection, and the consistently confident style of parenting that says, "Trust me. I know what I'm doing. You're in good hands." When he grows up, is he likely to be the kind of person who is a selfish jerk, or a person who is calm, kind, and confident?

This is a lesson we all need, including me. Sometimes, parenting is just a delight. Your children are a joy to be around, and everything is going smoothly. Other times, you can feel your buttons being pressed, and the logical part of your brain retreating into a corner somewhere. "HULK MAD!" It's time to take some breaths, give yourself room to think through what needs to be addressed and how you want to address it. When you've got yourself back in order, be the parent who can teach your child how to act, not only with the words you use but with the style and delivery you choose.


Sanders, M. R., Turner, K. M., & Metzler, C. W. (2019). Applying self-regulation principles in the delivery of parenting interventions. Clinical child and family psychology review, 22(1), 24-42.

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