When Kids' Big Feelings Trigger Parents, Emotional Co-Regulation is Key

How The ‘Ruler’ Strategy Helps Me Keep My Cool When My Kids Are Losing It

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One night last week, I found myself sitting in my bedroom in the dark, nursing my baby with tears pouring down my face. It had been a day. My usually mellow, obedient kids were having a hard day full of big feelings. They seemed to be feeding off each other’s negative energy. Someone was either crying or shouting or angrily stomping all day long.

My adult brain knew that they were just bored and overwhelmed. We are stranded at home together in the midst of a global pandemic. School’s canceled, everything is closed, and nothing is like it was two months ago.

But the wailing and whining and fighting triggered something in me that day. All of my modern, gentle, connected parenting techniques flew right out the window. I was already anxious, frustrated and overwhelmed, and their bad day sent me over the edge.

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I took this photo in the hospital days after I had my baby. I was bone-weary. I had been crying. I look completely bewildered because I was. I just didn’t understand how I could be that tired and still in motion. It was 3 am. I was washing breast pump parts in a basin in the hospital bathroom. Everything hurt. My maternity leggings were stained with breast milk and formula and blood. I needed a shower. I needed sleep. I needed to know the hard work and the excruciating pain would be worth it. I took this photo because when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t just see myself. I saw every woman who has ever been a few days into motherhood, simultaneously elated and impossibly tired. When I saw myself in the reflection, I imagined the rainbow of faces of new mothers across time and history, all over the world in every corner of every civilization since time began. I was alone in that room, but my tears, my happiness, my hope, my fear…they connect me to millions of other moms who can honestly say, “I see you. I’ve been there. We are the same.” There is so much difficultly swirled into the absolutely overwhelming love and gratitude of early motherhood. Welcoming a new soul into existence is magical. But even watching your wildest dreams come true can come with pain and desperation and loss and anxiety. These early days are just hard. So hard. And they are worth it. Eventually. I know that because this is not my first time. I have healed from this twice before. And I will do it again. For now, I’m making space for Hard. No. I’m embracing Hard. Inviting Hard into this space knowing that it is just part of this process. These hard days are ancient and sacred. They are a thread that weaves mothers together. Women have lived through this since time immemorial. We survive. We are changed. We emerge from these tough days, and we are better. Stronger. Ready for the rest of it. This kind of Hard is a chrysalis. Instead of fighting it, I’m letting it do its work. I can’t wait to see who I become.

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I started yelling. I mean, I’m kind of a loud, shouty mom to begin with, but this was something else. I was just barking out orders like a total asshole, while my angry little monsters stomped around and complained.

Unsurprisingly, losing my shit did not, in fact, create a calmer, more regulated home. It just made everything worse. My husband and our infant daughter just stared in bewilderment while mommy and the boys raged and shouted our way through bedtime.

Then I retreated to my room to weep and feel like a terrible mother.

The next morning, I took a minute with each of them to acknowledge that we had a tough day. I told them that they are still good, even when I get upset at them. I apologized for not being the best mom I could be, and promised them a better day. I even asked my oldest if we could talk about why he had such a hard yesterday, but it was too late. He didn’t remember anymore, or couldn’t put it into words so long after the fact. I missed my chance this time.

This isn’t how our life usually looks.

I am pretty in tune with my kids’ emotions. Since my oldest son could talk, we have had conversations about big feelings. We have always talked all of our children through everything we do, honoring the fact that they are whole people from birth. We don’t shy away from hard feelings, and we have gotten pretty good at helping our kids navigate big feelings. In our regular life, days like this are few and very far between.

But this isn’t our regular life; it’s life during a global pandemic. We are together all the time, and our emotions are always just a little bit heightened. This is a perfect environment for my kids’ big feelings to trigger my own. Because I’m always operating in a slightly uncomfortable state these days, it doesn’t take as much as it usually does to send me spiraling.

It might be understandable to me, but I’m a grown-up, and my kids are kids. It’s my job to actively seek out ways to make sure that they get to explore their big feelings without worrying that there will be a repercussion (i.e., Mom will act like a screaming jerk then apologize and maybe cry. Real healthy.)

I know I can do better, and expert suggestions can help.

Dr. Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, recommends memorizing the acronym “RULER.”

RULER stands for Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, Regulate. You can use this strategy to better understand your own feelings, and also to guide a conversation to help kids explore their emotions. This will cultivate their ability to work through big feelings on their own down the line.

This handy infographic explains what RULER means, and how to implement it in your life:

Emotional regulation is the most difficult and important thing to teach our kids.

They have to learn how to function well enough during big emotions to successfully complete necessary tasks and solve the problems. Nobody is born knowing how to bring themselves back from the edge of emotional meltdown. We have to teach our children how to cope with big feelings, and that means we have to learn how to do that, too.

Our kids need to know that there is no consequence for having feelings, and they can learn how to work their way back to a manageable emotion. If they know the big feeling is temporary, it can feel less overwhelming.

The most important thing is just be there. Don’t feel like you always have to verbally engage or find a solution. Quietly sit with your child and be a model of calm. Sometimes your reassuring presence can be enough to comfort your child out of their stormy mood.

If being present isn’t enough, practical strategies can help.

A glitter jar can helpful for small kids. Some children respond well to breathing exercises, like holding up your hand and slowly “blowing out” each finger like a birthday candle. Counting can be useful, too. I once saw a mom ask her child how angry he was, on a scale of 1-10. When the child answered, “eight,” she asked him to count down from eight, taking deep breaths between each number. By the time he made it to one, she was able to talk to him about his problem. There are endless calm down strategies that might work, so if the first one you try isn’t the answer for your kid, you can keep trying until you find what works.

Of course, being a model of calm is difficult AF when your kids are acting out and your own emotions are following suit. Parents sometimes need strategies, too. The most important thing is to be aware of when we are heading toward an unhealthy display of emotion, and reversing course before we get out of control.

When I feel my jaw clenching and I start to feel angry and tense, I know it’s time for me to be alone. If I take 2 or 3 minutes by myself to remind myself that my kids are little, and to focus on what I love about them, I am more likely to feel calm before I try to engage with them. Words matter, and when I talk to myself about my children in a positive way, I feel positively toward them.

I know I could have done better when my boys’ crabby, emotional day was getting the best of me. I have been a mom for seven years, and I know better. I have tools in my toolbox, and I didn’t use them. I didn’t regulate myself, so I failed to help my kids regulate themselves. They didn’t learn anything that day because I didn’t take time to teach them.

Another important part of this puzzle is forgiveness.

There’s no reason to beat myself up after the fact. My kids will always have another big feeling, and I can do better next time. I always apologize when I lose my cool so my kids can see me modeling that behavior.

Even if you’ve never thought much about this before, now is a great time to start. We are spending more time with our kids than ever, and opportunities to help kids with self-regulation are abundant. If you haven’t been amazing at self-regulation, it’s not too late for that either. You can still work on being more patient, intentional and emotionally intelligent, and that will trickle down to your kids.

“A child’s brain is still plastic, “says Dr. Brackett. “The minute you start regulating your emotions better, their brains will change to reflect that.”