Teach, don’t tantrum: Emotional self-regulation for parents

6 July 2023

As parents, we aren’t privy to the same societal sympathy as our children.

When kids are overwhelmed, they can burst into tears and wail for the neighbourhood to hear. If we did the same thing, the neighbours might be less understanding.

Luckily, we have other options.

Emotional self-regulation is a life skill we can develop at any age. And if we can master it, our children are more likely to follow our lead.

Positive Psychology practitioner Ashlee Mitchell (MCP) shares her advice.

By Ashlee Mitchell, Clinical Psychologist Registrar

Adults have tantrums, too

Emotional outbursts between parent and child can be collaborative. By that, I mean that a child can trigger a parent, and in turn, a parent can trigger a child.

How often do we plead with our children to make their bed or set the table, just to be ignored?

We can only ask so many times before we run out of patience. When that happens – if we’re like most parents – our frustration gets the better of us.

We yell at our children. Our children yell back. Tears flow. Doors slam. And we’re no closer to a happy (or tidy) home than we were before.

Emotional self-regulation can help us avoid situations like these (though I make no promises they’ll go away for good). The term refers to our ability to control and manage our emotional responses – which is not something we inherently know how to do.

Modelling self-regulation also helps our children grow a calmer mind and nervous system, boosting resiliency and self-efficacy.

‘Self-regulating’ and ‘coping’ are not the same

As we age, we tend to develop our own ways of handling our feelings. These could fall under the heading of a ‘self-regulation strategy’, but some can do more harm than good.

Productive strategies include those we’ve all heard before: take a walk, journal, exercise, talk to a friend, breathe deeply. These are ubiquitous for a reason – they’re effective! (Though not always practical.)

Counterproductive strategies tend to be antisocial: avoidance behaviours, withdrawal from friends and family, alcohol and substance abuse, lashing out at others.

Some of the latter are closer to ‘coping mechanisms’.

Coping mechanisms surface during ongoing periods of distress – such as bereavement, divorce or depressive episodes. They are all about maximising ‘positive’ emotions and minimising ‘negative’ experiences.

Self-regulation strategies, on the other hand, are more moment-to-moment. They are also more proactive and adaptable to different situations – like soothing a screaming child without also losing our heads.

Self-regulation improves with practice

Regulating our own emotions is a challenging task. That goes for children, adults, teachers, parents, psychologists… everybody.

Thankfully, it’s a skill we can practise like any other – and an invaluable one at that.

Here are three evidence-based strategies we can use to develop our self-regulatory prowess.

1. Identify – and reduce – triggers

We all have different triggers. What sends one parent spinning may only annoy another.

Maybe our child refuses to listen when we ask them to pick up their toys. Maybe they talk back. Maybe our skin crawls when they whine at us in the supermarket, begging for something we’ve explicitly said ‘no’ to.

In these moments, keeping our cool feels out of the question. We won’t be able to quell our emotional responses instantly – the aim is control, not suppression – but we can start to notice what sets us off.

Next time we feel rage or frustration growing, we can pause and notice the situation. Making a list of these triggers and identifying patterns between them can let us see them more clearly (and objectively).

Once we can see them, we can find ways to reduce them. But let’s take one step at a time.

2. Use positive self-talk

If we’ve spent any time reading self-help books, this is another strategy we will have heard before. That’s because – along with deep breathing and gentle exercise – positive self-talk works.

Becoming mindful of our existing self-talk is a good first step towards improving it. What stories do we tell ourselves about our self-worth? Our relationships? Our parenting abilities?

As parents, we often beat ourselves up immediately after we lose our temper with our children. This is a good opportunity to tune into the thoughts we have about ourselves.

We might think, for example: I’m not cut out for this. What kind of parent yells at their child?

Looking our self-critical thoughts right in the eye is the first step to challenging them. Replacing them will take time and may feel unnatural at first.

But with practice, we can replace the above with something like: I wish I’d handled that better, but I’m allowed to lose my cool. I’m still growing up, too.

Parenthood is a tough gig – and it’s unlikely we were taught how to regulate our emotions as children. Self-compassion will be essential as we work to improve our emotional capacity.

3. Use the STOP method

The STOP method is a grounding exercise. It’s perfect for helping us tune into our bodies and surroundings when we’re flooded.

As the name suggests, the idea is to take a break – however brief – from what we’re doing or thinking about.

The acronym ‘STOP’ stands for:

  • Stop what you’re doing. Step back. Take a breath.
  • Tune in to your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
  • Observe what’s happening around and inside you. Notice without judgement as best you can.
  • Proceed mindfully. Knowing what you’re feeling and what kind of environment you’re in, what would you like to do next?

By getting in touch with what’s happening around us and inside us, we can practise staying grounded in even the most charged moments.

It’s never too late to learn

Few of us learned how to regulate our emotions as children. Culturally speaking, it’s not considered a key life skill – though it absolutely is.

But that doesn’t have to be the case for our children.

By developing our own ability to self-regulate, we’re leading by example: raising a new generation of emotionally healthy adults. More immediately, we’re also creating a calmer home for ourselves and our families.

For more emotional wellbeing strategies, I recommend this free, government-funded parenting program. It’s excellent – and delivered entirely online.

Learning these skills may be tough. But a year from now, we’ll be glad we started when we did.

Want personalised help improving your self-regulation? Ashlee – and the rest of our team of qualified practitioners – is here to help.

Enquire today about counselling, telehealth or assessments for you or your child.