I Can Handle It: Emotional Regulation

girl in white and purple dress standing on seashore facing the golden hour

The entire You Are Not Your Mother membership community is built on resiliency research because I think the best thing that we can do as parents is raise our kids to be resilient. Happiness, success — those are nice goals but a whole bunch of that is out of our control. I mean, look at this crazy pandemic, right? Who coulda predicted how this would all play out? And who knows what the long term impact is going to be? I don’t know what it’ll mean for the job market my young adult and young almost adult will be facing next year or in the next decade. But I do know that they will be well served by resiliency tools no matter what happens.

One factor in resiliency is being able to manage emotions. This means being able to handle anxiety or sadness or anger in appropriate, productive ways. That’s why the title of this post is “I can handle it.” It means that we can handle our feelings even when they’re big, yucky, or uncomfortable.

When children are small with still developing brains they borrow our brains to help them do what they can’t do on their own. An example of this is a crying baby whose parent is able to hold and rock them until they settle. Or it’s a tantruming toddler whose parent is able to respond calmly instead of escalating. We “catch” each other’s emotions, which is why it’s so hard with a crying baby or a tantruming toddler but as adults we have the ability to think through and make decisions — more or less — about how to respond. We may want to lose it with them but hopefully we’re able to bring them towards us instead of getting sucked into their dysregulation.

We are social creatures with social brains equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to empathize and communicate with each other. Children are primed to tune in to their caregivers because this is how they’re going to learn. Before they have language, they are connecting with and learning how to interact with the world via our modeling even when we don’t intend to model. Which is why we need to figure out how to manage our emotions in order to help our kids do it, too. It’s not enough to say, “Calm down!” if we aren’t able to calm ourselves.

Many of us struggle to handle big emotions, especially when we come from dysfunctional families and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Remember I think parenting can be transformative so when we run into a big tangled knot of struggle, I think that’s an opportunity for that transformation to start. After all, why would we change if we were comfortable with how things are? So let’s normalize being a parent and feeling stuck and getting help to get unstuck. In other words, if you feel like you’re going to lose it when your child is losing it then instead of beating yourself up about it you can say, “Huh, this is really hard for me and I deserve some help with it.”

Emotional regulation skills are best learned when you don’t need them. Expecting them to be available when you need them most is a little like showing up for a marathon without any training and expecting that you’ll just be able to finish. We need training. If you struggle with emotional regulation, you can get better at it and you can help your child be better at it. It’s never too late to improve (that’s what life is about — learning and growing and gaining skills).