Last Modified: October 18, 2023 | Published: March 5, 2023

Being a parent can be challenging. This is especially true when you are parenting a child who is experiencing mental health concerns. It can be easy to become overwhelmed, angry, and upset. 

As a parent, as hard as it is, it is important to be calm during frustrating moments. This is a skill we want our children to have, and often it is one we were not even taught. In this article, you will have a moment to focus on your own mental health and emotional regulation. These are strategies you can use when you are feeling overwhelmed as a parent. 

Emotional regulation is the ability to have control over your own emotional state. This means calming down in an upsetting situation and finding emotional balance within yourself. 

When we are under stress from everyday life, when trauma is triggered, it can be very hard to remain calm. We may feel that we cannot handle the emotional demands of the day and manage the physical signs of stress in our bodies. We need to be able to identify where we are feeling distressing sensations, label the related feelings, and pick an appropriate coping strategy. 

If you are like most parents, you probably remember a time you snapped at your child in the heat of the moment.Then when you calmed down, you felt regret about the emotional outburst that took place. This may have left you feeling guilty or ashamed. This experience is normal. It is often the case that our own kids ‘press our buttons.’ They might say something that brings up an insecurity, fear, or a feeling of unworthiness that has been buried from years past. You might start asking yourself questions like, “Am I a bad parent?” or “Does anyone care about me?” or “Am I all alone?”

You come into parenting as a human being with coping mechanisms from your childhood. If you were the ‘caregiver’ for your family, you may take too much responsibility for keeping everything calm and comfortable. You may quickly lash out when your child is upset as a way to control the situation. This is a normal experience to do what feels familiar in response to intense emotions. However, as a parent, you will want to try not to play out those same patterns with your own children. Instead, take a moment to reflect on your feelings and choose your response. There is freedom in that moment between the situation and your decision on how to react.

Here is what you can do to skillfully respond to your child during distressing situations:

  1. Begin to understand where you feel emotions in your body. Notice any butterflies in your stomach, tingling sensations in your lips, pins and needles in your fingers, tightening in your chest muscles, or a stiffness in your legs. 
  2. Connect body sensations to emotions. Can you identify what emotion matches that sensation? For example, does your face get warm when you start feeling angry?  Do you feel jittery throughout your body when you feel anxious? 
  3. When you feel a strong emotion in your body, use a healthy coping tool to help yourself calm down. Once we start to recognize a strong emotion coming up, we can allow for the feeling without getting wrapped up in a story about it. Instead, watch the feeling come and let it pass by. Instead of reacting immediately, just wait for the emotion to come and go.
  4. Practice daily. This is a hard skill to learn. It will pay off over time in a major way if you make the effort to recognize your emotions and let them pass through. As you learn to identify and be present with the emotions in your body and choose a healthy coping skill for yourself, you will find more peace and happiness in your own life.  You will also be setting a positive example for your children.

Healthy calming and coping tools you can model for your children

Take a break. 

Share with your child that you are putting yourself in time out. Let them know you are going to another space to calm down, and let your child know when you will return to finish the conversation. As you are calming down, do not focus on why you are upset. Instead, focus on relaxing your body. 

Take deep breaths. 

Practice taking slow deep breaths through your nose and into your belly, and out through your mouth. You want your breath to enter your lower diaphragm to signal your nervous system to calm down. It can help to practice this skill before you need it. For example, before going to sleep, start by putting your hand on your lower diaphragm and practice taking deep breaths. 

Relax your muscles by squeezing your hands together and releasing. 

Squeeze your hands tightly, take a deep breath, and then release your hands. 

Try progressive muscle relaxation. 

Progressive muscle relaxation is squeezing each muscle group in your body one at a time and then releasing that muscle. A lot of research shows this strategy, when done daily, can reduce stress within your body. Check out YouTube, search for progressive muscle relaxation, and find a video that resonates with you. 

Practice meditation using an app.

Try an app like Headspace or Calm. Sometimes when we feel a strong emotion, our mind starts to race, and it is hard to get a handle on our thoughts. Play a meditation and practice focusing your mind on the speaker. Then, when your mind starts to wander, just put your attention back on the speaker’s voice. 

Exercise daily to release stress. 

Intense emotions like anger, anxiety, and grief are physical in the body. Exercise can help our body reduce the level of stress it is experiencing. Many health studies show the benefits of exercise for stress and emotional regulation. Pick something you enjoy such as a walk around the block, a bike ride, or a youtube workout video.

Take a break and do some yoga or stretching. 

Always check with a doctor before starting a new workout routine. Yoga and stretching can help put your body into the parasympathetic nervous system.  Exercise like this can leave you feeling calm and more in control of your emotions. 

Journal without filtering your thoughts or emotions. 

Having a private space to write out your experience and emotions can be therapeutic. It is a way for you to express your feelings in a safe and skillful way. It also gets those racing thoughts out on paper, helping you calm down. 

Moments of gratitude.

Research abounds on the importance of gratitude in mental health. Opportunities for gratitude may include: sitting at a stoplight, waiting in line at the coffee shop, or even sipping your morning coffee at the kitchen table. Take 3 deep breaths and say ‘thank you’ for your experience. If it is a tougher time, you can say thank you for the air you breathe or the sun on your skin. Pay attention to anything around you that brings you joy such as the smell of cut grass, a gentle breeze, or a bird flying by your window. Another excellent way to practice gratitude is to make a list of 3 things you are grateful for each night before bed. As you write down 3 things, you will likely think of many other aspects of your life for which you feel grateful. This shift of focus each day can bring you improved sleep and mental health. 

Drink a calming cup of tea. 

Drink a non-caffeinated sugar-free healthy beverage. Allow your mind to focus on the flavor, texture, and smell. Fully immerse your senses into your cup of tea.

Family life can bring up many difficult emotions. Therefore, it is essential to be able to recognize and find healthy ways to cope with negative emotions. If you want to learn how to help your child with emotional regulation, check out one of our three courses. These include an introduction to emotional regulation, emotional regulation in childhood, and emotional regulation in teens.

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