The Pause Button: How to Respond instead of React to Your Kids

Last week, my boys could hardly contain their excitement about Easter. When it came time to dye Easter eggs, they were practically bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm. Things were going well and they were all smiles until an unfortunate egg mix up led to an epic screaming match over whose egg was whose!

At first, I calmly tried to intervene, but as the screaming escalated, I snapped! Suddenly I found myself screaming over them, "YOU GUYS! THIS IS RIDICULOUS! STOP SCREAMING!!!"

Sadly, this wasn't an aberration; after four weeks of quarantine, my "flipping my lid" moments have been more frequent than usual, which begs the question, why is it so darn hard to keep our cool when our kids aren't keeping theirs?

Why doesn't knowing that we should hit the proverbial pause button so we can thoughtfully respond instead of react to our kids translate into actually doing it?

It boils down to one thing: Emotional Regulation.

Emotional regulation is our ability to tolerate life's stressors and curveballs. It's the process of keeping our emotions in balance and away from the extremes. When a person has good emotional regulation skills, they're able to FEEL their feelings but not get overwhelmed by them.

It's a simple concept but an important one- as it turns out, our emotional regulation skills are the foundation on which having a happy, healthy and fulfilled life is built.

In fact, research shows that EQ (emotional intelligence) is a stronger predictor of a person's success and overall happiness than IQ.

People with good emotional regulation skills have healthy and connected relationships, good boundaries, flexible and stable moods, resilience when faced with stress and healthy coping strategies.

For parents, having good emotional regulation skills takes on even more importance. Children are underdeveloped in their cognitive and physiological capacities to emotionally regulate, so they rely on US to help them do it.

When WE can't stay regulated, our children won't be able to either.

Think of it this way: Good emotional regulation = better able to handle life's stressors = less reactive = more responsive = happier = better relationships = better parent = happier children

Often when our kids are "acting up" we focus on learning parenting strategies and tools for deescalating and decreasing their unwanted behaviors. Here's the thing: We can have all the parenting tools in the world, but if we have poor emotional regulation, none of them are going to get us very far!

So, if you, like me lately, are having more "flipping your lid" moments with your kids than usual, here are...

4 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Regulation Skills:

1. Identify your parenting triggers. The first step in improving your emotional regulation, is to identify and understand your parenting “hot spots” and emotional triggers. Parenting is an intensely emotional experience and whether we like it or not, our kids are going to stir up some intense feelings!

Take a moment to journal the answers to the following questions:

  • What time(s) of day do I tend to be most triggered with my children?
  • What are the top 3 things that make me the most angry with my kids?
  • What are my judgments about my child's behavior?
  • What judgments do I have about myself as a parent?
  • What fears are playing into my judgments?

In the therapy world, there's a saying, "name it to tame it." The act of naming your feelings has a calming effect on the nervous system. Extra bonus for writing them out which stimulates both your analytical left brain and your emotional right brain.

2. Create a self-care plan. It's physically impossible to stay calm and regulated when you're exhausted, overwhelmed and not taking care of yourself. The reason? When we're chronically stressed, our sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, constantly releasing stress hormones into our system which literally hijacks our ability to think rationally and be responsive.

Really dialing in your self-care entails taking inventory of which areas of your life are out of balance, prioritizing what needs attention first, then creating a plan to make small, consistent changes.

Maybe you've been neglecting your physical health- staying up too late binge-watching your favorite show, emotionally eating, drinking more than usual (pretty much the entire world right now!), not exercising ... or maybe your emotional health has taken a big hit - the quarantine has resulted in you being emotionally withdrawn, you're stuck in an anxiety spiral, you haven't been connecting with friends and family... whatever area needs the most immediate attention, start there and pick ONE THING to adjust.

CLICK HERE to make your self-care plan.

3. Make sense of your childhood. Renowned psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Daniel J. Siegel says, "the best predictor of a child's well-being is a parent's self-understanding." Understanding and making sense of our own childhood experienes is imperative for becoming less triggered by and more responsive to our children.

Arguably the most influential factor on our ability to emotionally regulate is our attachment style. Attachment (not to be confused with "Attachment Parenting") refers to the quality of the emotional bond between an infant and her primary caregiver (usually mom) which continues throughout childhood and adolescence.

There are four types of attachment: secure, anxious-avoidant, anxious-ambivalent and disorganized (click here to learn more). People who had a secure attachment with their primary caregiver, meaning their caregiver was consistently attuned and responsive to their needs, generally have stronger emotional regulation skills than those who didn't

But, don't worry- if you didn't have a secure attachment, it doesn't mean you're doomed! That's where understanding and making sense of our childhood experiences comes in.

Even if nothing horrible happened during your childhood, in order to understand who you are, what makes you tick and why you have certain challenges as an adult (i.e. difficulty staying calm when your kids aren't), you've got to spend some time making sense of your childhood. There's just no way around it!

When we're able to construct a cohesive narrative about the impact our childhood experiences and relationships had on our development, we can begin to heal some of those old "attachment wounds" in turn strengthening our emotional regulation skills.

To begin the process, I recommend reading Parenting from the Inside Out by Dr. Dan Siegel and completing the exercises throughout the book. In the meantime, you can download this free reparenting exercise.

If you had a difficult childhood during which you experienced trauma, finding a qualified therapist, who specializes in attachment and trauma, to assist you in processing and making sense of what you went through will be tremendously helpful.

When looking for a therapist, make sure to do your research. Look for a therapist who is certified in EMDR, one of the most well-researched modalities for treating trauma.

You may also consider finding a therapist who is certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy or "EFT," a type of therapy that is based on the science of attachment.

4. Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention to the present moment in an open, accepting, curious, discerning way.

You can practice mindfulness formally and informally. During a formal mindfulness practice, you specifiy a length of time (let's say 10 minutes) during which you focus your attention on your breath or a mantra. Every time your mind wanders (which it will, A LOT!), you non-judgmentally notice where it went, then gently bring your attention back to your breath.

You may have to bring your attention back to your breath 100 times during a ten minute meditation and that’s OK! That is mindfulness.

Every time you notice your mind drift away from the focus on your breath or mantra and you intentionally bring your attention back to your breath, you're literally rewiring your brain and, wait for it... strengthening your emotional regulation skills.

That's right- having a consistent, daily formal mindfulness practice has been proven to improve emotional regulation.

Now, for all you reluctant meditators (I was one too!), you don't have to sit in the lotus position and meditate for hours on end. Just ten minutes a day will make a difference. And if that feels too overwhelming, shoot for five! There are a gazillion free mindfulness apps to help get you started. This is one of my favorites.

For some informal ways to practice mindfulness throughout the day, CLICK HERE.

As I said before, you can have all the parenting tools and strategies in the world, but if your emotional regulation skills are lagging, there's no way you're going to be able to access the pause button when you're in the eye of the storm with your kids. I speak from personal experience!

As the adage goes, we moms have to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first before we can help our kids. If you've been struggling to be responsive instead of reactive to your kids, I encourage you to become intentional about improving your emotional regulation. Working on yourself is the best thing you can do for your child.

Having said that, be sure to give yourself A LOT of grace right now. The state of heightened stress due to the global pandemic is enough to cause even the most zen, emotionally regulated moms out there to lose their cool a little more often. It's understandable and to be expected.

On that note, if you need extra support, CLICK HERE to schedule a complimentary 30-minute session. I'm here to support you in whatever way I can.

Hang in there, Sensory Moms! You're doing an amazing job!


Who has the time to read dozens of books on SPD?

Download my FREE 25 page PDF guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder.

Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.