Managing strong, negative emotions is surely much easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort. You have to be in control of yourselves if you want them to be in control of themselves.
Wander any playground or mall and at some point you are likely to observe a parent coaching her child to take deep breaths in and out to calm herself, or directing her to “use her words” versus hitting, kicking, or grabbing. These are good parenting strategies for helping children learn to manage and express their emotions in healthy ways—a critical and challenging task. But what most parents figure out early on is that the single most important skill for effective and positive parenting over the course of a child’s lifetime is their own self-awareness and self-control.
In fact, Tuning In, ZERO TO THREE’s national Parent Survey, showed that a majority (60%) of parents say having enough patience is at the top of their list of things they wish they could do a better job of. Almost half say they don’t want to yell or raise their voice as quickly (42%) and want to better control their emotions and reactions (47%).
Parenting young children is an intensely emotional experience. There is the pure pleasure of cuddling, playing, laughing, exploring, and delighting in your baby’s daily growth and discoveries. And then there are the challenges—the moments of stress, anger, frustration, and resentment—at not knowing what a baby’s cry means and how to calm her, at the totally irrational demands of a toddler, or at the aggressive behavior of an older child toward a new baby. These experiences naturally evoke strong feelings that can be hard to handle. But at the same time, most of the behaviors that we find maddening are a natural part of growing up. They are not intended to be malicious; they are a child’s effort to cope with a difficult feeling or situation. Children need our assistance, not our anger.
Thus, it is important to tune in to and manage our feelings because how we react in these moments deeply impacts our children’s ability for self-regulation, self-control, and overall emotional health far into the future. Both research and real-life show that when parents react with emotional intensity and harshness, children’s distress tends to escalate, and whatever the problem at hand, it is less likely to get resolved. Here are some strategies that can help:
Tune in to your feelings. Feelings are not right or wrong—they just are. It’s what we do with them that can be helpful or hurtful. When you stop judging your feelings, you can be more open to looking at and owning them–the first step in controlling and expressing feelings in useful ways. One dad eloquently summed it up, going straight to the heart of the issue: “It’s important to learn to recognize your own triggers. It’s not fair to expect your children to deal with your baggage.”
We’re all human. It is the rare parent who wouldn’t be consumed with embarrassment, quickly followed by anger and resentment at a child when, for example, at some family event she throws a fit for not getting the first piece of cake.
Tuning in to your feelings allows you to make a conscious decision—instead of a knee-jerk reaction—about how best to respond. In this case, it might mean taking some deep breaths to clear your head. Calmly tell your child that you know she is disappointed, but that it’s not possible to always go first, and that she will be okay—communicating confidence in her ability to cope. While remaining calm is hard work, the benefits are far-reaching. Remaining calm allows you to stay connected with your child rather than increasing his distress by experiencing an emotional break with you. He feels understood, not shamed, which makes him more open to accepting the limit being set; and when you react calmly, it decreases the stress hormone in his own brain which helps him calm more quickly. Staying calm also results in a lot less remorse for having lost your cool, and fewer nights going to bed feeling like all you did that day was yell and stress on your kids—a common and painful experience for many parents.
Do the unexpected: When your natural impulse is to explode at some outrageous demand or provocative behavior, it can be effective for your child (and you) to give her a big bear hug or do something silly. This can reduce the stress and tension of the situation, and doing something totally unexpected can also put a stop the unwanted behavior. This is not coddling or giving in. If your child tells you he hates you because you won’t give let him have 5 more minutes to play and you approach him with a bear hug while saying, “It looks like you need a big mommy hug,” you are letting him know you hear his frustration and empathize with it. You are not giving him 5 more minutes—which would be “coddling” or rescuing him from having to cope with a limit he doesn’t like. It may surprise you how this can turn the tide—doing the opposite of what he expects when he seems intent on provoking you. Or, don’t respond to his bait and just turn on some music and start to do a silly dance, all the way to the dinner table to which you are trying to transition him. Simply say, “join me” and move along. It may sound hokey but it can be very effective, and relieve both his stress and yours.
Give yourself a time-out. When you are having a hard time remaining calm in the presence of your child, be sure your child is in a safe place and give yourself a minute or two to cool down. You might say: “Mommy needs some time to think about how I can best help you.” This can be a very powerful strategy in that it throws a monkey wrench into the process, which can sometimes halt the child in his tracks. And it allows you to remain present even in the face of the negative emotional intensity these situations often arouse. It also serves as very powerful role-modeling for your child about how to manage strong emotions—exactly what you are trying to teach your child. This takes you out of a reactive state and gives you time to think about the meaning of your child’s behavior, including what you want him to learn from the experience. This makes it much more likely you will come up with a response that sets the limit or guides your child’s behavior while remaining nurturing.
It can be especially powerful to use this strategy together with your spouse or partner, especially when you are at odds about how to respond to your child. “Mommy and daddy need to have a little chat to think about how we want to help you with this challenge you’re having.” This sends an important message to your child, beyond modeling self-control; you are a thoughtful parenting team and are working together to help him learn to cope.
Managing strong, negative emotions is surely much easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort. The payoff is huge, for you and your child. Parents in some discussion groups said it best: “How you react to things is how they’ll learn to react to things… You have to be in control of yourselves if you want them to be in control of themselves.”