“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach” – W.E.B. Du Bois
It’s one of those days. My kiddos wake up on the wrong side of the crib and the wrong side of the bed – double whammy. I attempt to make breakfast, but in return I get screechy, whiny voices that battle every suggestion I make, so I choose their breakfast for them. I try to sit down at the table to get them to eat, knowing that if they don’t, we’ll all pay for it later with blood sugar crashes and tantrums. Instead, food ends up on the floor, and drinks are spilled all over the table. Now we have 10 minutes to get ready for school and rather than getting dressed and ready, I look up to see my kids running outside to climb on their swing set. It’s a battle to get them to put their clothes on, brush their teeth, make sure they have everything and get out the door!
Inside, I want to pull my hair out! I’m so tired. I didn’t sleep last night because I was up most of the night with our newest addition to the family and suddenly another night’s sleep has come and gone in the blink of an eye. “Just do what I ask and stop making things so difficult!” is what I yell in my head (and almost yell out loud before I restrain myself).
But today is a day that I don’t do that, and instead listen to the rational voice in my head that says “This is what six and two year olds do. They explore, they try to push the limits however they can, and they can’t yet regulate their emotions, so it all just comes out in whiny voices or by constantly fighting with each other.” Somehow, today, that voice quells my own desire to let my frustration get the best of me. On other days, that desire gets quelled by telling everyone I need to take a break and going in the other room to catch my breath. Sometimes it’s just a look from my husband to remind me to take that break. Sometimes it’s yoga. And sometimes, I fail, and I get frustrated and yell, or say things I wish I didn’t say, or become irritable and snappy myself because I’ve tried to push away the frustration in a space in my mind that is already overloaded with so many other things. No one is perfect, and each moment we feel an intense emotion around our kids is another opportunity to model emotion regulation. Each time we succeed in this area, it’s another deposit in the bank because we are teaching our kids an extremely valuable lifelong tool: how to deal with their emotions, even if it isn’t comfortable.
Why is emotion regulation so important? Research has shown that the better kids are able to emotionally regulate, the better they fare in school, work, and social relationships1,2,3. They are also less likely to abuse substances or develop destructive behaviors4. Therefore, it’s important for us parents to model what “healthy” emotion regulation looks like more often than not. Since modeling is the strongest form of learning for our little ones5 (yep, you can teach them as much as you want by what you say, but if your actions do something else, they are going to likely mimic that instead!). Feelings like anger, sadness, jealousy (or even extreme excitement) can be challenging for anyone to deal with. Kids don’t yet know how to cope with those intense feelings so their natural tendency before they “learn” cognitively, is to act it out. If we as parents can model how to deal with those feelings ourselves in a positive way, our kids will be more apt to follow. We can then coach them through times when they start to feel these intense feelings and help them identify it and verbalize healthy ways to deal with it. If they’ve already seen us do it, it will be even easier for them to understand.
Regulating our own emotions as parents can be difficult as is, but even more so if (when) we are sleep deprived. It is important to find preventative ways to stay in balance, as well as to find ways to deal with intense frustration in the moment when our kiddos are doing everything we tell them not to do (bouncing on the couches, fighting with each other, running when we ask them to walk or yelling when we ask them to talk quietly, to name a few). Here are some tips and tricks for healthy emotion regulation:
Just remember that while it’s important to feel all your feelings and to teach your kids that as well, it’s equally as important to teach your kids how to cope with those feelings as life will throw them a thousand experiences where they will need the skills to deal with it themselves. The most important place the learning starts is within ourselves.