Emotion Regulation in the Wild World of Parenting

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By Lauren Johnson, MSWPicture of Lauren Johnson, MSW

A common uniting experience amongst parents is that we all feel overwhelmed at times. Being a parent is an amazing journey that can push our buttons and leave us feeling tired, stressed, and sometimes triggered. We all feel the pressure to be the best parent for our children and never really feel certain what that parent looks like.

A certainty in life and in parenting is that there will be ups and downs. So how can we best help our children to become the adults that can handle distress and emotional waves? Studies have shown that parent’s ability to regulate their own emotions is strongly associated with their children’s ability to regulate emotions (Castro, 2015). Otherwise, your children are observing and learning from your experiences and actions.

You are human. It is absolutely alright to show our children that we experience a range of emotions. It is okay to express to our children that we have had a difficult day and are feeling frustrated. When we as parents can learn to regulate our emotions when we are in a negative space then we not only showcase those skills to our children, but avoid overreacting to our children’s behaviors. So what are some steps you can take if you are feeling overwhelmed or triggered in a particular parenting situation?

  • Take several deep breathes. David Grossman, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Rangers, developed a technique to assist soldiers in managing stress reactions. Combat breathing is a simple way to bring yourself into the present moment and prevent over reactions. Simply breathe in through your nose to the count of 4, hold your breath to the count of 4, exhale through your mouth to the count of 4 and again hold your breath to the count of 4. Repeat!
  • Observe or take notice of your own feelings and thoughts. Ask yourself what about this particular situation is causing such an intense emotional reaction? Is this really about what is happening in this moment or are there other internal/external factors making this seem insurmountable?
  • Remind yourself that childhood is a time for learning and growing. It is normal for children to make mistakes. More importantly, their reactions to the stresses in life do not have to be taken personally. Finding compassion and showing an empathic response can help reduce stress reactions and also promote a connection between you and your child.
  • Check in with yourself. See if the expectation you are holding for your child is realistic for his/her developmental age. Am I stuck in an idea of what this “should” be like instead of what is actually the reality?
  • Focus on the positives! While your child’s particular personality trait might be causing pain in this moment, you can find solace that it may serve him/her later in life. Sometimes we simply need to focus on the humor in being parents. Take a moment, smile and give yourself a much needed self-compassion break. You are doing a great job!

Here are some helpful sites and videos to continue learning about managing stress, mindfulness and finding compassion for your parenting self!


Castro, V. L., Halberstadt, A. G., Lozada, F. T., & Craig, A. B. (2015). Parents’ Emotion-Related Beliefs, Behaviors, and Skills Predict Children’s Recognition of Emotion. Infant and Child Development, 24(1), 1–22. http://doi.org/10.1002/icd.1868