I try to channel my mom now, as I sit in my daughter’s bedroom, ready to break down into tears. My baby has been sick for over a week: fevers, coughing, muscle aches, the works. She’s been crying non-stop since 4:30 am and it's only noon. She doesn’t want to eat or drink. She is bored, being isolated from her friends. She is so frustrated, she smacks me, for no reason whatsoever. She doesn’t want hugs.
Mom, how did you do it?
Young children are not capable of self-regulation, only “co-regulation”, which requires assistance from caregivers. By sharing their distress with us, children learn to turn extreme reactions into more regulated emotions. No denying, it's a tough role to play (stay tuned for some tips on self-care). But because we play such an important role, we must take it seriously.
- Every hour of each day, we model emotion regulation for our children. They are looking for cues from us, watching and internalizing what we do, not only when they are distressed, but more importantly, when we are distressed as well. Do we respond to their cries with anger? Do we fume in traffic? Say hurtful things to our spouse? Sometimes, we are not much better than our kids. As adults, we should pay attention to how they deal with stress (more on this soon).
- Children should feel safe to express emotions. No matter how hard it is in the moment, I try to remember that children cry or act out because they feel safe to do it with us. It is a special kind of trust. There will be plenty of people who will betray our children's trust in the future. We must not be among them.
- Children don't need to be toughened up. I have heard some folks suggest that we should be tough with our kids to prepare them for life. No matter how hard I find my daughter's meltdowns to be, I do not ignore or punish her. Child development experts overwhelmingly recommend sensitive, responsive approach to kids' emotions. My personal belief is that our kids will be asked to obey rules and submit to authority their whole lives. They will toughen up elsewhere, it's not our job to toughen them up. There are gentle ways to help kids learn to cope with their emotions (stay tuned for my interview with a leading expert on this topic).
- Sharing emotions is a cornerstone of emotional health. Think about your day at work. Are we allowed to express our emotions? No, we must keep ourselves in check. By 5 p.m., we are done with that place. And then we call a friend and vent about our stressful day at work, and life somehow gets better. Similarly, kids let their guards down at home. Be your child's friend. Listen.
- Imagine if you were only allowed to be happy and never allowed to complain or have a bad day. Sounds like torture, and yet that's what we may be expecting of our kids. Children should be able to express all emotions - not only happy ones. I try to remember this when my impulse is to tell my daughter to stop crying. Instead, I say "mommy is trying to figure out how to help you feel better" or "it's okay, baby, you are having a tough day, but we'll get through it together". Sometimes I can't say anything because her crying is so loud. Then I simply stay there with her, ready to offer a hug when she needs it, letting her know that I know how she feels.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. It is very hard to be someone's container for negative emotions. No matter how much I want to be the kid right now and fall apart, I can't. My daughter needs me to hold her frustration for her. Right now my role is to be a model of self-regulation for her.
With that said, my own self-care is very important. And that will be a topic of my next post.