By Alyssa Blask Campbell
Do you ever feel like you can’t have hard feelings in front of your child? When you get frustrated or sad do you feel like you have to hold it all in so that you don’t upset them? Often in the world of respectful parenting, there is this idea that parenting with intention means always being calm and happy with our kids.
Here’s the thing, the goal is not that kids think we don’t have emotions. The idea that we’ll never be triggered or feel hard things in their presence, that we'll just remain calm at all times is unrealistic and not how our bodies are designed. Kids know when we are feeling something hard whether we tell them or not. They pick up on our tone, our body language, and the other non-verbals signals we’re sending out all the time.
Hard Feelings Are an Opportunity to Teach Kids
What if instead of trying not to express hard feelings around our kids, we viewed it as an opportunity to foster their emotional development? We can talk to kids all day about how to process their emotions, but if we’re not modeling it for them, our words will only take us so far.
How are kids supposed to know it’s okay to feel hard things when they never see us do it? How will they know that it’s okay to be angry or sad if we don’t let ourselves feel it in front of them? If we want them to know that their feelings are normal and they can build a toolbox for regulating, we have to show them.
Before Self-Regulation Comes Self-Awareness
The first step to modeling self-regulation is modeling self-awareness. What does it feel like in your body when you’re feeling sad, mad, or disappointed? Does your heart race? Does your chest get tight? Do you start to feel hot all over? Does your jaw clench? When this happens to us in the moment and we share it with our children, they learn that it’s normal to feel big things in their bodies and to tune into those signals rather than tuning them out or trying to make them stop.
“I feel so frustrated that the dishwasher isn’t working! My chest feels tight and I want to yell!”
“I'm feeling overwhelmed by all of the noise here. I feel hot and edgy.”
“This is not how I expected this to go. I feel so mad that I can feel my jaw clenching.”
Next, we get to model self-regulation for them. This will look different depending on what helps you feel calm in the moment. Here are some ideas:
“I am squeezing my fists and taking breaths to help my body.”
“I’m taking ten deep breaths, and now I feel ready to solve this problem.”
“I’m going to step outside to look at the sky to help my body calm. Want to come?”
When a child is uncomfortable with an adult’s emotion
Sometimes kids aren’t sure what to do or how to react when they see a parent or caregiver expressing a hard emotion. When that happens there are two things we want to emphasize:
1) It’s normal and okay for us to feel hard things.
2) Our children do not have to fix our hard feelings.
When kids understand that it’s safe for their caregivers to feel hard things and that they don’t have to be responsible for fixing or solving our problems, they can feel safe and secure even when they see us experience something hard.
This might sound like…
“Sometimes I feel frustrated. I won’t feel this way forever.”
“You don’t have to fix my feelings. It’s okay for me to feel sad.”
“When I’m ready to feel calm I can take some deep breaths.”
What if I don’t have the bandwidth to respond like this?
There will be many times that you just don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to respond this way. We see lasting positive results when we respond with intention just 20% of the time. When you show up as your imperfect self, you give your kids permission to do the same.