February 8, 2023

The Therapeutic Parent: When You Lose Your Cool

By Hannah Sedlacek

Let’s be honest – parenting can be hard. Let’s paint the picture that we know all too well…It’s dinner-time – also sometimes known as the “witching hour” or the everyone-needs-me-at-the-same-time hour. You’re simultaneously making dinner and managing one kid doing homework and another kid at your feet asking to be held. You’re overstimulated and exhausted and you just lose your cool. This looks different for everyone. Maybe you yell at your kid, maybe you stomp away and slam the door, or maybe you crash on the floor ranting about how awful your day was.

Well, alright, what now??

First thing’s first

Take a deep breath and remember: everyone has these moments. Give yourself some grace. Parenting is a journey and none of us have arrived. Once you’ve taken your deep breath, remember that kids learn best through modeling. Parent, whether you like it or not, you are always modeling behavior for your child – it’s your choice what behavior you model. Show your kids what you do when you have big emotions. Model good coping: 

“Oof, I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now. I’m going to take some deep breaths and take a drink of water.”

“Guys, I’m feeling frustrated right now. I need some time to calm down, so I’m going to turn the stove off and take a quick break.”

We cannot expect our kids to do what we cannot do ourselves. If you’ve said or done something that deserves an apology, go ahead and provide that, and then move on. No need to revisit the situation.

Repairing is key

This is the perfect scenario, right? You have a little outburst, model perfectly for your kids taking deep breaths, apologize well, and then continue with what you were doing. This doesn’t always happen. Just like our kids, our big emotions get the best of us sometimes and we have to repair later than we would like. That’s okay. But do just that – repair. Go back to your children in a couple of hours or the next day and share with them what was happening inside of you, how you managed that, and provide an apology if one is needed:

“You know when mom/dad yelled at dinner time? I was feeling big feelings. I was feeling ____ (frustrated, overwhelmed, etc.) and I yelled. I’m sorry that happened. I needed to take a deep breath and take a little break.”

Last step: take care of yourself! 

Try to identify why you lost your cool. Were you tired from lack of sleep? Were you overstimulated from a noisy house, kids touching you constantly, your child’s light-flashing toy in your face, or maybe all of the above? Did you have a hard day at work? Is there tension between you and your spouse or partner? Once you identify a “why” (or maybe two or five hundred), brainstorm and then implement some ways in which you can care for yourself relating to those “whys.” Can you go to bed a little earlier tonight? Do you need to have a conversation with your spouse or partner? Do you need to hide all noise-making light-flashing toys for a couple of days? Your needs matter just as much as your kids’. With children, we see the need and meet the need. We owe the same to ourselves. See your need, meet your need.

Caregiver affect management

I want to take a second here to talk about “caregiver affect management.” Caregiver affect management is the ability of a caregiver (that’s you, parent) to recognize and regulate an emotional experience within yourself. “Affect” is ultimately the outward expression of your inward emotion – what you show others of how you’re experiencing your own emotions. Caregiver affect management is the ability to control your affect in any given circumstance so as to care for your kids well. This is really important in parenting for healthy attachment. It is essential that you, as a parent, are able to identify, understand, and accept your own feelings and emotional response and ultimately manage that well. This takes practice. Good caregiver affect management helps kids feel safe and secure, which is ultimately the goal and what, in turn, allows kids to be in-tune with their own emotions and learn to manage those well. Check out this parent self-care worksheet from Attachment, Regulation, and Competency (ARC).

Hey, parent, you’re doing a good job. Keep seeing your need, meeting your need, and giving yourself grace when you lose your cool.

“As children develop, their brains “mirror” their parents’ brains. In other words, the parents’ own growth and development, or lack of those, impact the child’s brain. As parents become more aware and emotionally healthy, their children reap the rewards and move toward health as well.”

― Daniel J. Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive

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