For a long time, I believed the end-game of emotional regulation was calmness. I thought if I could just remain calm no matter what, and teach my children how to do the same, then we would all reach a next-level state of being.
But, something unfortunate happened. The harder I tried to remain forever zen, the more disappointed I felt in myself that I continued to feel normal human emotions. And that’s what happens. When calm is the ultimate goal, we beat ourselves up and we even get frustrated with our children, because we feel we are failing at self-regulation.
It is not natural or normal to remain in one emotional state throughout the day, and our brains cannot go from a high state of activation (like anger or frustration) to calm in two seconds. In fact, when we put zen up on a pedestal, we are attempting to live up to unrealistic expectations that set ourselves and our kids up for failure.
Pretending to Be Calm Is Not Helping Our Children
In the world of conscious, positive parenting, I have perceived the following messages, and maybe you have too. We “should” always remain unruffled. When we show emotions like frustration, anger, sadness, and annoyance, we are giving our children power over us. We are showing them that they have control over our emotions.
Let’s flip that for a moment. When our children activate one of our stronger (what is perceived as negative) emotions, and we deny that, THEN they have the power. It is only when we connect with ourselves and name our feelings that we reclaim our own power.
Furthermore, and here is something that blew my mind when I learned it, pretending to be calm when we are clearly not can actually be more alarming to our children! Let me explain.
Our brains are always scanning our environment looking for incongruencies, looking for things that don’t add up or make sense. Emotional incongruencies are something that the brain (yes, your child’s brain) is scanning for. So, if I am visibly angry (red face, shaking hands, nonverbal cues) but pretending to be calm (because I’m desperately trying to achieve that state), my child’s brain will actually see that and register me as a threat because of the incongruence. It says, “this doesn’t add up.” So, when we are attempting to look calm while our nonverbal language says we are upset, we may actually escalate our child.
What we can do instead of pretending to be calm in the face of any and everything is to be honest with our children. This has the benefit of showing our children how to realistically work through their emotions while showing them congruency and authenticity. This may actually even ease their fear or anxiety.
If a child sees that you are clearly getting angry or are upset in some way and you’re denying it, their brain registers this as incongruent, as I’ve said. But also, that child may be wondering what is wrong with you because they know that you aren’t actually “fine.” They may worry that they did something to make you mad or that you are keeping something important from them. They may then become hyper alert in their own nervous system or hyper focused on making sure that you are okay.
It’s actually a skill your child needs to be able to notice and track signals, and we don’t want to trick them into not believing what they are observing with their own eyes. We want them to notice when someone is getting frustrated, angry, excited, and so forth. It’s an important relationship skill.
Rather, you can admit that, yes, you are feeling frustrated or angry, but that you are okay, you are handling it, and it is not something they caused or need to worry about. You might say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now so I’m going to take a few breaths and connect with myself. I’m still here and listening to you, and I will be ok in just a few minutes.” This models how to deal with (and truly regulate) big emotions, and it makes sense to the child’s brain that what you are saying matches what they have observed.
The Disservice of Remaining Calm
There are no bad emotions. All emotions are valid. All emotions are data. To move from a state of high activation to calm is a journey. When we attempt to bypass all of our emotions to get to a state of calm, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice because we are dismissing our true feelings and the message that those feelings came to give us. Ultimately, this does not honor our true selves or our experiences.
When we deny our other emotions in favor of appearing calm, we lose appreciation for the wide range of human emotions and what they can teach us. We bypass all intermediate states, and we end up just pretending we are calm, sucking it up, pushing it down, or holding it in. Because our brains know this is not congruent, this doesn’t make sense, we end up exploding later from the repressed emotions, and now we’ve entered a cycle of feeling, stuffing, and exploding.
Here’s some news. You can be angry AND regulated. You can be sad AND regulated. You can be excited AND regulated. And yes, you can be calm AND regulated. Regulation is not a state of calm alone.
What Regulation Really Is
Regulation is being able to recognize and modulate your emotions. It has nothing to do with achieving a certain state, but rather regulation is having your response to whatever emotion you are feeling be in your control. This is why you can be angry AND regulated, or angry AND in control.
It’s a mindful awareness, connecting with yourself and your emotion to listen to your own needs in that moment, which allows you to gain access to those higher brain regions so you can be rational, think it through, and make an intentional choice.
So, this looks like saying, “I’m feeling angry. What is not working for me right now?” Connect with yourself. What do you need? What is this emotion telling you? In this space, you have control. You can make a choice. You’re not screaming. You’re not throwing things. You are in control of your behavior WHILE feeling the anger. You’re angry AND regulated. You’re angry AND connected to self. You’re feeling it, but it’s not controlling you.
And this is what we can teach our children. We can teach them how to be mad. How to be sad. How to be annoyed. We can model for them a healthy relationship with emotions, with self, in a way that honors who we are, honors our experiences, and listens to the data our emotions give us. This way, they don’t learn to bypass the whole process in order to attain a false sense of calm. They don’t stuff down their feelings. They don’t bottle them up only to have them explode later. They learn to honor their emotions and to honor themselves. Isn’t that beautiful?
How to Truly Get Regulated
The process of regulation is learning to work with our own activation. Otherwise, the way we respond to our children when they are displaying a big emotion is more about getting them to stop so that we don’t have to feel our own activation. However, when we work with our own, we can then show up for them in true connection.
Two steps to regulation:
1. Name it to tame it. Dr. Dan Seigel coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” Just by noticing and naming your emotion, you reduce stress by up to 50%. Dr. Dan explains why this works here.
2. Feel it to heal it. This is where we give ourselves permission to accept whatever it is we are feeling. Often, we learned in childhood what emotions were unacceptable to express, and we adapted. We learned to stuff those down, and so allowing ourselves to feel them now can be deeply uncomfortable. This could be another reason we try so desperately to bypass to calm. Calm is acceptable. Calm feels good. But our other emotions have much to teach us. Anger, for example, is often a defense of fear. Fear is a vulnerable emotion that we don’t like to feel, and so sometimes anger shows up instead. Anger also can mask sadness. But again, sadness can be a very vulnerable state, particularly if were rushed out of it or shamed for it as a child. The only way out is through, so when we can connect with ourselves during these vulnerable emotions and allow ourselves to feel it and to hear what it is telling us, healing takes place.
If we want our children to love themselves, to have a relationship with themselves, and to honor their emotions and experiences, we can do the work so that we both model what that looks like and so we can show up for them in their times of need free from our own emotional restrictions. That way, our response to their big emotions is not about us and our comfort, but about them in that moment.