As parents, we all go through stressful situations, daily. Making a conscious effort to understand what you are feeling and why, will help your child too deal with strong emotions in a healthy manner.
Dr Meghna Singhal
Kirti, a working mother, comes home exhausted after a long day. As she walks in the door, she is greeted with toys strewn all over the living room. She hears water dripping from the open taps in the bathroom. Her children, with colour-smeared faces, are running around screaming. Anger rising, she starts yelling at her children and shouting at the nanny. The children get scared and run away to hide in the bedroom.
Parenting can be an intensely emotional journey. On a daily basis, you may be dealing with an angry toddler or, an aggressive primary schooler or, a resentful adolescent. Added to this, you often have to deal with stresses at work and in your daily life. So yes, parenting can be quite challenging. It can evoke strong feelings in you that can be difficult to manage.
Even if your anger is not directed towards your child, your angry reactions can impact her emotions and hence, her behaviour. For example, when your child witnesses an argument or a fight between you and your spouse, or between family members, she experiences what is called ‘background anger’. This can affect her emotionally and socially as she grows up.
* Research has consistently demonstrated that a parent’s emotional response directly influences a child’s emotional response and behaviour. Suppose your toddler wants to wear a green hair clip but you want her to wear matching yellow hair clips. She is already on the verge of a meltdown. In this scenario, if you respond with irritation and frustration, it will only add to her distress. On the other hand, if you empathise with her and say, “I understand that you really want to wear the green clip today. Would you like to try on both green and yellow clips to see which one looks better with your dress today?”
Your child will probably respond in a calmer way. The key here is how you respond and react to a particular situation. That is why it is also important to analyse and examine how your emotional responses can impact both you and your child. Let’s examine this in detail.
Impact on you, the parent
When you respond with strong emotions, or when you try to suppress or resist your negative feelings, it can affect you in the following ways:
When you react in the heat of the moment, it can lead to you experiencing feelings of guilt or regret, later.
Also, if you do not tune in to your emotions, or manage what you are feeling during such moments, you could end up being caught in a vicious cycle. This means, when you have a negative experience in the future, not only will you be reacting to that situation, you will also be re-living emotions from similar past incidents.
If you are unwilling to accept your negative emotions or, if you judge them as ‘bad’, you will not be able to understand their deeper underlying causes.
Acknowledging, allowing and accepting your negative emotions is thus an important part of parenting. Rather than seeing negative emotions as something you need to get rid of, learn to become aware of them and express them in ways that are not harmful or hurtful, to you or your child.
Impact on your child
Your emotional responses can influence the following aspects of development in your child:
Coping skills: Your child’s ability to respond to challenging situations. Remember, your responses and reactions are often mirrored by your child.
Emotion regulation: Your child’s ability to express and manage his emotional responses and more important, his ability to calm himself down.
Social skills: Your child’s ability to ‘read’ or react to the emotional cues others send out. This also has an impact on whether your child is able to make and maintain friendships as well as productive relationships.
Self-esteem: Your child’s self-esteem, belief in himself and his ability to manage his emotions. This, in turn, can further impact his academic achievements, happiness, and satisfaction in relationships.
Cognitive ability: This refers to whether your child is able to think for himself, learn independently and problem-solve, when he faces difficult situations. Remember, when your child is stressed or distressed, it can affect how his brain functions.
So, what can you do as a parent?
As you can see, a strong emotional response can have long-term effects on both you and your child. So, it is vital for you as a parent to understand and better manage your reactions and responses. In fact, becoming self-aware is a necessary skill in positive parenting; learning to self-regulate your emotions is equally important.
But how can you do this on a daily basis? Here are a few simple practical ways to be more in tune with your emotions and of course, manage them better:
Know yourself, your feelings: Tune into your feelings. Know that your feelings are not right or wrong and it’s okay to feel that way. When you stop judging your feelings and instead accept them, you’ll be in a much better place to react in a more positive way, rather than in a hurtful or harmful manner.
For instance, we saw in the earlier situation that Kirti loses her temper when she sees the mess at home. If she realises that she is being overwhelmed with negative feelings, it will be the first step towards helping her do something about them, rather than giving in to her emotions and losing control.
Label your emotions: Once you have tuned into your emotions, it’s time to label them. Is it anger that you’re feeling or anxiety? Are you getting impatient or feeling irritated? A lot of different emotions (such as anxiety and anger) have common physical signs, such as rapid breathing, increased heart rate, or sweaty palms. Making distinctions between emotions becomes helpful to learn to manage them better.
In our example, Kirti is experiencing a mix of emotions. She is tired due to a long day at work. She is angry because the house is messy as she expected to enter a clean house. She is frustrated that the children have not had their bath and are not settled in for the evening. She is also upset because of the water dripping in the bathroom. Labelling these different feelings, ‘I am upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed’, will help her work through them and deal with the situation more thoughtfully.
Calm yourself down: Now that you have identified the emotions you are feeling, it’s time to manage it. Do whatever works for you — close your eyes and take deep breaths. If you tend to shout when angry, pretend to blow bubbles; Why not do a few simple stretches to relieve the tension you feel? Or even, better, remove yourself from the scene. Go for a change of scene, step outside your home, look at the sky, trees or birds. This will give you an opportunity to think clearly about the why your child behaved this way, and what you want her to learn from this experience. It is also an effective way to role-model. Your child will observe and learn from you how to regulate strong emotions — what you’re trying to teach her, in the first place.
Now that Kirti knows she is experiencing a mix of different feelings, she realises that she needs to address them. She first goes and switches off the bathroom taps. She then tells her children that she is going to have a cup of tea and a snack. Doing this helps Kirti feel rested and relaxed. It also gives her time to frame a thoughtful response to her children, one that doesn’t involve shouting, and yet one that enables her to direct her children to clean up.
Do something unexpected: Doing something that immediately relieves the tension also works. It could be something unexpected or outrageous, such as switching on the music and doing a silly dance to relieve stress. This doesn’t mean you endorse your child’s behaviour. This is simply a way to diffuse the tension of the situation and teach your child that nothing can be achieved through a heated discussion or bad temper.
Kirti started out feeling upset at the mess in her house. But now, she has consciously decided to deal with the situation positively. So, Kirti decides to play a game to get her children to clean up. “I am a Grab Monster,” she tells her amazed children. “I am going to grab whoever has not cleaned up their stuff!” she roars. Laughing and squealing, her children get into the game. They run around picking up all the toys and cushions they had left scattered across the room.
Reflect and understand: Once the storm has settled and you have some time for yourself, think back. What evoked that strong emotion in you? Were you tired or stressed about work or something else? Was it what your child did or, was it what you assumed, based on your own past experiences? For instance, if your child is fussing over her food, you may become exasperated and say: “Why are you troubling me like this?” However, it may not be the child’s intention to trouble you at all — she may simply be a picky eater or, perhaps dislikes that particular dish or food item. Maybe, she is not even hungry! Have you considered such possibilities? Maybe your child’s behaviour took you back to your own childhood. Did you have overly strict parents who did not allow you the space to say or do things you didn’t like?
Kirti, for example, realises that her reactions are often guided by her own childhood. Her parents were very strict. She was expected to be always be very tidy at home. She is also exhausted and stressed from a long day at work. But Kirti knows she can either choose to react to or remedy the situation. By being self-aware, by acknowledging her emotions, both good and bad, she can now respond positively. This, in turn, will help her children learn new ways to clean up their mess. In the process she is creating a home environment that is characterised by warmth and understanding.
Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Like Kirti, understand that negative emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When you feel such emotions, know that you are not ‘bad’, either. Don’t feel guilty. Whatever the reason for the upheaval in your emotions, it is crucial you are able to gain control and manage them better. Only then can you teach your child to respond in the right manner. Expressing negative emotions shouldn’t make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, all negative emotions can and should be accepted — however, know that only some behaviours can be accepted. When we are not reacting to experiences, we allow ourselves the space to express fear, anger, frustration or anxiety in ways that are not harmful to others, to ourselves and most important, to our children.
After all, it is only natural that we experience all these negative emotions, daily. How we choose to express these emotions, can make the difference to how our children feel and respond. In fact, it becomes a vital life skill — one that both you and your child can learn to enhance the quality of your life and relationships.
* Research studies
• Easterbrooks, M., Bureau, J., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2012). Developmental correlates and predictors of emotional availability in mother–child interaction: A longitudinal study from infancy to middle childhood. Development and Psychopathology, 24(1), 65-78.
• Ladd, G. W., & Pettit, G. S. (2002). Parenting and development of children’s peer relationships. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of parenting volume 5: Practical issues in parenting (pp. 269– 309). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
• Denham, S. A., Mitchell-Copeland, J., Strandberg, K., Auerbach, S., & Blair, K. (1997). Parental contributions to preschoolers' emotional competence: Direct and indirect effects. Motivation and emotion, 21(1), 65-86.
Dr Meghna Singhal is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and a parenting consultant at ParentCircle.