It's tempting to be stoic in front of my kids. I want them to believe I am strong and in control. I want them to be comforted by the thought that they don't need to worry — mama's got it handled. But what about when I don't? What if I need to cry, scream in a pillow or just sit and process a loss? Those moments do come, and the best thing I can do is let them in on healthy ways I'm handling hard emotions. Where else will they learn the skill?

I can feel it again... the heat. The burning in my ears that tells me it's time for a "mommy time-out." Sometimes I can't shake the suspicion that my preschooler and newborn conspire together to create as much chaos as possible, particularly when I'm up against a deadline. I want to be strong. Unshakable. Unmoved by screeching and spilled grape juice and spit up on my shirt (again!). I want to just shut my emotions off. But the heat in my ears reminds me that I'm human, I have powerful emotions, and they're demanding to be heard.

What to do?

I know better than to punish my children for my own shortcomings. But these moments are quick, and it's difficult to stop and reflect on my own heart when things are being thrown down the stairs or my authority is being openly defied.

As a parent, my next move is critical. The (literal) heat of this moment presents me with the opportunity to show my children how to handle strong emotions in a healthy way, or not. Maybe not consciously, but I choose to either blow up at my children, stuff my emotions away or really deal with the issue, which often incites such a reaction from me because I'm feeling insecure or afraid. Afraid of being manipulated. Afraid of what might happen in the future if I can't control my children. Afraid I'm screwing them up, royally. So when they test me, they sometimes feel the full force of my fears channeled through harsh words and snap judgments. I'm better than this. I know better than to punish my children for my own shortcomings. But these moments are quick, and it's difficult to stop and reflect on my own heart when things are being thrown down the stairs or my authority is being openly defied.

Hard work

It's hard work, being a parent. I'm not just talking about making sure the kids are fed and clothed, though that is certainly a struggle at times. I mean parenting. Guiding. Being in tune to their needs and my own, not in that order. Being healthy enough emotionally to give them what they need. It's tough! It's confusing! Enter parenting expert, Dr. Laura Markham. "I think the most common way we cause damage is by getting angry at our children," says the mom and clinical psychologist. "We also cause damage when we don't manage our own fear response and we give kids the message that we can't handle what's happening, including their feelings. And, of course, we cause damage when we give kids the message that emotions aren't OK, and we try to disassociate ourselves from them, or repress them."
Dr. Laura is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, and the mastermind behind AhaParenting.com.

Relax, you've got this

This tantrum and my feelings about it are not an emergency. No need to panic.

"Bottom line," Markham says, "I think the most important thing we can model to children about scary emotions is that we can handle them, and it isn't an emergency. That helps our child to feel safe enough to allow himself to feel the emotion. Once he feels the emotion, it begins to dissipate, and he moves back into a state of equilibrium." So when I feel my emotions getting out of control and I'm tempted to lash out at my kids, I can relax. This tantrum and my feelings about it are not an emergency. No need to panic. This is a perfect opportunity to show my kids a healthy way to deal with scary emotions. Many times I've encouraged my preschooler to take deep breaths when he's upset, but I realized one day that when I'm upset, I don't breathe deeply. In fact, I hold my breath and clench my jaw in an (often vain) attempt to stifle the harsh emotion trying to force its way out. This might be a step above throwing a mama-fit, but this oxygen-deprived, jaw-clenched woman is not the mother I want to be.

Be a Sherpa

isolated flashlight"Ideally, we try to stay calm when our kids are feeling overwhelmed by their emotions," Markham notes. "Another possibility that isn't ideal is if we get overwhelmed by our child's emotions, so that we become very emotional in response. Usually this happens when we become anxious or afraid in response to our child's emotions. It's our responsibility to work on our own emotional regulation to minimize responding to our child from our own anxiety. We're supposed to be the grown-up, the Sherpa, the one holding the flashlight and modeling healthy emotional regulation. So when our child slides into dark waters, our job is to hold the light and help her out, not to jump in with her." Sounds like a good plan, but actually accomplishing this task may require a change in mindset for many parents. Markham admits that staying calm in the presence of an upset child isn't easy. And what are we to do with our own feelings, anyway? We acknowledge and honor them when they present themselves. We give ourselves as much respect as we attempt to give our children.

Respect yourself

"That means that we will find ourselves shifting through different emotions all day long. Happiness, sadness, disappointment, frustration, delight. Emotions are always arising and passing away. Tears are always coming to the eyes and smiles are always coming to the lips. If we accept all of these emotions and let them move through us, they dissipate, rather than triggering us. If we talk with our kids as we feel those emotions, we'll be teaching them about emotional wholeness at the same time." So "being strong" by refusing to acknowledge our own hurt, pain and fear actually does our children a great disservice. Markham says that if we communicate that feelings are not allowed (ours or theirs) the child will attempt to rigidly push away the emotions and lose the ability to be flexible. They lose conscious control of their emotions, which in turn surface at other times, often by the child lashing out.

Anger is deceptive

Resist acting while angry. That means resist interacting until you calm down and can ask for what you need in a way that is not an attack.

"Does this apply to anger? No. Anger is a secondary emotion. It is the body's fight response, a message that there is a threat. Unfortunately, when we are in the grip of anger, our child often looks like the enemy. So indeed action might be called for, but any decision we make while angry will derive from our fear, not our love. Resist acting while angry. That means resist interacting until you calm down and can ask for what you need in a way that is not an attack. If you think your child deserves to see how angry he's made you, remember that those are your feelings, and only part of the emotion is coming from this current interaction. Most of it comes from your own past, and the way you're seeing this situation. Being authentic about the truth of your experience never requires you to 'dump' them on someone else, unfiltered."

Next time

So, next time I feel the heat in my ears, the tightness in my jaw, the oncoming tension headache, I can choose to wait. I don't have to respond immediately. I can show my child how to cool down and regroup instead of lashing out. Isn't that exactly what I'm wanting from him in situations like these? He can't learn that behavior unless I show him.

More on children's behavior

Strategies for helping your teen make an attitude adjustment
How to end your child's aggressive behavior
Love your kids: How discipline shows you care

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