Managing Emotions: How Parents Show Children How to Behave

Managing emotions is about finding the inner strength to master our very strong feelings. Sometimes this requires an internal pep talk, especially when your children are counting on you. “Pull it together!” you might say to yourself as you mourn a loved one and push past the grief to make supper for your family. Or maybe your child brought home a poor report card. You know your child’s eyes are on you, watching to see how you handle the news. So you take a deep breath before responding.

Pulling it together—managing emotions in an attempt to get things under control—is the result of a healing human impulse. Regulating our own behavior is how we push past difficulties to return to normal life after loss; calm ourselves after anger; or self-soothe after a major disappointment. But there’s an added incentive to managing emotions when our children are around. As parents respond to pain, fear, anger, sadness, and grief, they teach their children how to handle tough situations. It’s an opportunity to show our children how to behave when the going gets rough.

Self-regulating, or managing emotions, is a critical life skill. But parents are only human, and we come in all different flavors, with very different natures. Some parents are easygoing while others are quick to anger or tears. It may be hard to feel those feelings without losing control. It can help to pause and think about the kind of example you are setting as you respond to difficult feelings. Parents are the role model for a child’s future behavior.

Father is managing emotions by calmly holding angry toddler in football hold
Even if he doesn’t show it in the moment, your calm reaction to your child’s tantrum offers him a sense of security and shows him that it is possible to manage his emotions.

That doesn’t mean you should paste a smile on your face and pretend that nothing’s wrong. Children can see through that phony smile from light years away. They also know that when people are hiding things, something’s wrong. Not knowing what that something is, that fear of the unknown, may leave children feeling unsettled, with the sense that something bad may happen. It makes them feel insecure. Like there’s something scary lurking behind that pasted-on smile. Something that might rock their world.

Finding a Happy Medium

It wouldn’t be normal to paste a smile on our faces and pretend that nothing’s ever wrong, 24/7. Our children would pick up on the artificiality of that situation, as much as they’d pick up on you being angry at them for a bad report from a teacher. As such, it’s important to find a happy medium. We want to show our children that we feel these yucky feelings, but that’s okay, because we’ve got those feelings under control. We’re managing our emotions.

This is how we teach children to deal with their own emotions. By setting an example that it’s not about what life hands you, but how you deal with whatever that might be.

Sure. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. And that’s when we have an opportunity to show our children how to make the best of a bad situation with grace.

Managing Emotions in Front of Children

Our own reaction to a toddler’s tantrum as he purposely upturns his bowl of cereal and milk, can show him how to deal with chaos and the out-of-control behavior of others. If you remain calm and in control as you clean up the mess, you are showing your child a better way to manage his own emotions when he is feeling frustrated. You are also showing your child how he might lessen the distress he feels by taking back control of a bad situation. Self-regulation is really an invaluable skill.

Calm mother is managing emotions as she holds her crying child
Your child is crying, but you remain calm. She feels that and it comforts her, and shows her how she can also be calm if she chooses to be in control.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to be in control. Perhaps especially when your child is watching. “Dealing with emotions in front of children is very tricky,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman of the Terrorist Therapist, “because kids see through parents’ attempts to hide their emotions.

“For example, if there’s some news on the TV that makes their parents scared or upset, and the parent tells their child that there’s nothing to worry about, the child knows that the parent is lying. This makes the child feel worse, because now they’re not only scared and upset about the news, but about not being able to trust their parents to tell them the truth,” says Lieberman, whose bestselling book, “Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My!,” describes the phenomenon of parents telling children there’s nothing to be scared or upset about in relation to terror. “But it could just as well be news of the coronavirus epidemic, presidential impeachment, political divisiveness, or even murder.”

Controlling Anger

It’s clear we don’t want to lie to children. But finding the right way to manage our strong, unpleasant feelings is not so easy. Let’s say we’re angry. How should we deal with our feelings around our children? Dr. Fran Walfish, family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” offers the following ten tips for the parent dealing with anger, a child’s or their own:

  • Deal with your anger in the moment. The build-up and surprise factor is the scariest part for your child.
  • When angry, remove yourself from the situation; take a short cool-down time, then return and deal with the situation directly, and in a calm manner.
  • Refrain from verbal put-downs, berating, or spewing hostilities to your child or spouse. Make this a solemn commitment.
  • As you recognize and accept anger as a natural, normal human emotion, accept it in your child. Invite your child to tell you about his or her own anger, openly.
  • Talk about feelings with your child. Embrace anger as just another acceptable feeling.
  • Set and hold boundaries matter-of-factly, rather than with a flurry of anger.
  • Work on extending your tolerance for delayed gratification. Be patient. Your child will comply only if you are supportive and on their team.
  • Teach your child to always tell you the truth. Assure him that you will work on not getting so angry because you love him and do not want to scare him.
  • Know that you are a model for your children. Your child will think, “If Daddy/Mommy explodes, why shouldn’t I?”
  • Be kind to yourself. Know this is a process, not a quick fix.  Be sure to hold on to your motivation to raise happy, healthy, disciplined, loving children.

The Negative Impact of Losing Control

No lessons can be taught, no learning can take place, when children are flooded with emotion.

Dr. Claire Lerner specializes in child development and parent guidance. She’s also an expert in the self-regulation of emotions and how managing emotions affects our children. According to Lerner, when parents have difficulty dealing with their own emotions, it has several negative effects on the child. For one thing, says Lerner, a parent’s poor self-regulation increases a child’s distress. “There is a growing body of brain research suggesting that when parents escalate alongside their children who are escalating and in high-stress mode, it increases the child’s distress. What children need most when they are in the ‘red-zone’—when their minds and bodies are out of control—is help getting back to a state of calm.

“No lessons can be taught, no learning can take place, when children are flooded with emotion,” says Lerner. “In these moments, they need their parents to stay loving, supportive, and present to help them get back to a calmer state. That is when the problem-solving can begin.”

Angry mother breaks up spatting children
When children are out of control, a parent’s anger may keep children from getting into problem-solving mode.

But the negative impact goes both ways, according to Lerner. When a child is experiencing strong feelings, a parent may find it hard to stay calm. “Because we love our kids so much, we want them to be stress-free and to feel great about themselves all the time. So, when they express difficult feelings, like sadness, fear, anger, frustration, or disappointment, we get triggered. We don’t want them to be struggling with those emotions so our knee-jerk reaction is to jump in with reassurance (‘you’ll get to see grandma another day’) or by minimizing (‘there’s nothing to be scared of’).

We need to get comfortable with our children’s discomfort.

“When we avoid or try to talk children out of their feelings,” says Lerner, “the feelings don’t go away, no matter how irrational we think they might be. Instead, children pick up on the fact that we are uncomfortable with their emotions and they learn to hold them in. This makes it more likely those feelings will flourish and get amplified as children don’t have a healthy outlet for working through them. This is why we need to get comfortable with our children’s discomfort and manage our own emotions so we can help them learn to manage theirs.”

Misinterpreting a Child’s Behavior

Lerner says that when parents become “reactive” or have a harsh reaction to a child’s behavior, it’s often a case of misinterpretation. “When a child laughs or runs away when being corrected, the parents worry she is a budding sociopath who doesn’t care that she has done something wrong. In fact, these avoidant behaviors often signal that a child is overwhelmed in the face of her parent’s anger and disappointment. Getting more harsh and punitive only amplifies her shame and discomfort and no lesson gets learned.

“Or take the example of a child having a tantrum in public. He is not purposefully trying to drive you insane or embarrass his mom or dad. He is just having a hard time coping with some challenge. The more reactive the parent gets, the more reactive the child gets. Tuning into and managing these reactions makes the difference in a child’s development. The parent’s response impacts his ability to learn good coping skills and guide his future behavior.”

Benefits of Managing Emotions

Dr. Lerner says that managing emotions enables parents to be responsive, rather than reactive. “This requires mindfulness—the ability to calm our minds and bodies when we are triggered by a challenging behavior so we can think about our feelings and reactions and then choose a response that we believe (and hope!) will help our children learn positive ways for getting their needs met.”

mother holds head as children run around wild
When children are out of control, be responsive, not reactive.

Lerner outlines four positive benefits to managing emotions as parents of children:

1) When a child is spiraling out of control, and her parents stay calm, loving and present, they are giving her the greatest gift—letting her know she is safe and secure, that her parents can handle and are not afraid of her difficult moments and emotions, and that they accept her completely. She is seen and understood.

2) When parents stay calm and connected, children calm more quickly and are then able to work on solving the problem.

3) When parents don’t run to a child’s rescue, to make it all better when their child is struggling (in order to pacify the parents’ own stress and discomfort), they send the message to the child that they believe he is competent to solve his own problems. This builds the child’s own confidence in his ability to master all the challenges he will face as he grows.

4) In managing their own feelings effectively, parents provide a powerful role model for how to manage emotions.

Offsetting the Out-of-Control Parent

Let’s say you’re fine with the idea of managing emotions and setting a good example for your child. But what happens in the scenario where one parent has good self-regulation and the other does not? Are there steps you can take to offset the negative effects of the outbursts and poor self-regulation of your child’s other parent?

Lerner suggests that when things are becoming heated, parents call a timeout to think things over. “A parent might calmly state: ‘Hmm. This is a problem: you want ice cream but that is not a choice right now. I am going to take a mommy moment to think about how I am going to help us solve this problem.’

“This gives the other parent a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond, and throws a monkey wrench into what might otherwise become a heated back-and-forth. It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of stopping the child short in his tracks, in shock at your calm response! Taking a timeout can keep parents from being reactive; it gives them time to think, and provides a very powerful model for exercising self-control.

“A timeout is a great tool for co-parents, in particular when one is less reactive than the other. It is also a good tool to keep from parents undermining each other or the case in which one parent says no while the other caves in to a child’s demands. Taking a timeout also gives parents time to come up with a united plan,” says Lerner.

Managing Emotions: Timeouts for Parents

What’s the best way to announce a parents’ timeout? Lerner says that in the challenging moment, the less reactive parent should state the problem, for example: “We have explained the rule is to stay in your room after lights out. We see you are having a hard time cooperating with that rule, so Mommy and Daddy are going to have a little meeting to think about how we can help you follow this rule. We’ll be back in a minute to let you know what your choices are.”

After the timeout and a short, private discussion, the parents come to the child with their (unified) position on the matter. That might be:

  1. If you stay in your room, the door can remain open.
  2. If you come out of your room, we will put up “Mr. Gate” who helps kids stay in their rooms to get a good night’s sleep.

It is never easy to manage emotions in the face of strong, unpleasant feelings. But when we make the effort, everyone benefits, not least of all, our children. Because when we show our children that we can control our feelings, it tells them that they can do it, too.

And that’s one of the most important lessons we can give them as parents.

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About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Smarter Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.