Strategies for Parents Through Big Emotions

Last week I wrote to you about seeing your children’s tantrums and difficult emotions through their eyes. In it, we walked through the perspective of toddlers and young children. I offered some strategies, not all my own, to help teach our children they are safe with themselves and us as they navigate the hard emotions in life. I deeply hope it gave you some insight because emotions and behavior require language above all else. In that light, I’d like to spend some time writing to you about, well, you the parent. I know anything can look good in writing, but the reality is that parenting is not an easy job; far from it.

Let’s Get Real For a Minute

When children have big emotions, tantrums, sleepless nights, and tears with the title “mama” or “papa” we all stay completely calm right? Sailing effortlessly up at 3 am to shoo the monsters away, waking with a smile to flip pancakes, remaining calm as our dear toddler exclaims her disdain for the eleventh choice you’ve offered? We are their parents, we should and can be in control.  We can model resolve for our children, discipline, and that all grown-ups are happy. I grew up in the ’90s, everyone’s parents were working through some version of this.  By the time I had Henry in 2017 the new tune was “child-led everything” which required you to shadow your baby’s every move and somehow notice when they were ready for something new.

I’m really, really hopeful in writing this that you read it with the ridiculousness I intended, but also with some vulnerability to acknowledge any narrative you have that the title “parent” is having it all together. Little humans are hard. When you enter the world of parenthood in any capacity no one prepares you for the avalanche of emotions that will come with your new little (or big) human. In our minds, there is such a dream, as in any role, about what we want in our new relationship. I can admit to you I had a Pinterest board of “Henry’s Style” before he was born. By the time I was in labor with Declan I knew all I needed was my own breastmilk and baby pajamas. I also had a tribe lined up to help me with my new baby and then toddler Henry. Not knowing the level of support I needed, along with the personal trauma I was experiencing, led to my postpartum depression with Henry. With Declan’s journey in the world, I knew I had to honor my own emotions and needs.

Caring for Self and Communicating

That right there is what all parents need when it comes to the tantrums and big emotions of our little lions, um, loves. If we as parents can acknowledge that we also have big and real emotions when our children are struggling with our language we can offer ourselves support. If we don’t acknowledge how hard the emotions are for us we will find ourselves flipping pancakes with a gritted smile, losing pieces of ourselves along the way, and modeling to our children that big emotions are so scary even mommy has to push them down.

So what can we do when our emotions run high after that sleepless night, the eleventh tantrum, or (pick your own poison)? Remaining calm when our children are struggling is important. This teaches our children that when they are experiencing a big emotion we can keep them safe. The reality is that getting to this place of calm requires a lot of work on the parent’s part well before their child’s big emotions. The other reality is that inevitably all parents will not be calm at a certain point in parenting, everyone loses control of their emotions. It’s okay. Really. It’s not the loss of control that is the problem (I repeat to myself daily). It is how we respond to that loss of control that teaches our children what to do when they lose control too.

In the first reality, taking care of ourselves to remain calm can look like a variety of tools, skills, and needs for the parent. The root of this work is to acknowledge that we ourselves are emotional beings with language and behavior. In acknowledging we are emotional beings we are acknowledging that our emotional self needs love, care, time, tools, and words. It requires us to be our own biggest advocate and begin to lean into areas of our lives that either we personally struggle with or emotions that we don’t understand. In leaning into what we personally struggle with or seek to find clarity on we are providing both emotional care and accountability for ourselves. In some cases, this can be done alone in self-reflection and in other cases, this needs to be done with professional counselors. Personally speaking, I live with Complex-PTSD and the tools I’m now able to lean on in times of emotional dysregulation came through the hard work of trauma-informed care. I needed help navigating my big emotions and that is okay, it’s okay for you too.

In the second reality, I want to be very clear that if you are losing your temper and either physically or emotionally hurting your child this behavior is not okay. I can understand the loss of control, you are not a bad person if you have done this, you’re a person who has lost control and in that loss of control caused harm. The important thing here is to name that you’ve done it, offer yourself grace, and then get help as soon as possible to prevent this kind of harm from happening again. In less extreme cases that are so common among parents where we are simply at our wit’s ends, yelling happens, punishment to control our child is dished out, and wine is poured to deal with that moment a similar strategy can be used. Tara Brach used a metaphor of a U-Turn and the strategy of R.A.I.N.

When in Doubt, Let it R.A.I.N.

In this strategy, Tara teaches us to recognize, acknowledge, investigate, and nurture. We can recognize that we lost control of behavior and that our own limbic system is activated. Then, we can acknowledge the emotion behind the emotion as well that we are out of control. From there we can investigate the “why” and nurture our hearts. In this healing moment maybe we recognize that we’ve worked a sixty-hour week and have no reserves or maybe you’ve been home all day but your child’s big emotions have also been home all day. No matter the reason, naming it will guide us to the type of nurturing our bodies and hearts need.

This final strategy is the key to reclaiming your own peace as well as teaching your children the important truth that mama (or papa) is a human too. That no one is perfect and everyone has emotions and a hard time. In our home it looks a lot like this, “Wow, mommy had a tricky time and felt so overwhelmed, I’m really sorry I yelled about the coats. Can I do that differently?” Henry chimed in recently with, “Yea mama, try it kinder.” I did, we hugged, and moved on with our day.

Jessie Cooper

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