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Pop Culture: Rules for Emotional Regulation

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Coraline's drawing - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Coraline's drawing

I was cleaning the kitchen in early January when I came across a stack of artwork my 5-year-old daughter, Coraline, had brought home from school. I took a break from cleaning to glance through her recent creations: houses, animals, people. The usual. However, as I flipped through the pile, one image in particular caught my attention.

The drawing showed four people standing next to each other. Three of them had big smiles on their faces, but the fourth person, who was larger than the rest, had a wide-open mouth full of sharp teeth. It was clear that this person was angry and yelling. After looking at the picture and reflecting a bit, it became clear that this person was me.

And I'll be honest, the image looked pretty familiar. An accurate title would be something along the lines of "Daddy losing his cool while trying to get everyone out the door." As hard as I try, I regularly struggle with managing my own stress in front of my children, especially on weekday mornings.

But what struck me the most about the drawing was just how aware of my feelings and energy Coraline had become. And I wondered, What was I teaching her about managing challenging emotions? What was I modeling?

I know I'm not the only caregiver feeling high levels of stress these days. We're two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and most parents I know have been struggling to stay afloat after being challenged with the nearly impossible task of juggling all the things: working, cooking, cleaning, raising children, keeping up to date with school protocols, laundry, attempting to maintain a relationship with their partner, etc. It's been so exhausting and stressful.

Coraline and her 3-year-old sister, Penelope, are clearly noticing that stress.

When it comes to teaching our children, many of us immediately jump to topics like reading, writing, counting and riding a bike. But regulating emotions is important, too. How often are we actively teaching them what to do when they're feeling overwhelmed, stressed, sad and/or angry? And what kind of example are we setting?

The month of December was not a great one for me. Blame it on the darkness. Blame it on the cold. Blame it on COVID. Blame it on the hectic holidays. All of it was constantly feeling like too much, and I was basically just attempting to crawl across the 2021 finish line. As a result, I found myself regularly relying on unhealthy coping strategies for managing my stress. I was staying up late, drinking alcohol every night and passively parenting pretty much all the time — staring at my phone, acting annoyed whenever my kids asked for something, counting down the minutes until bedtime. I was just trying to get by.

When I reflect on challenging stretches like the one in December and think about what my children are observing, I'm not proud of it.

So, in January, I decided to make a few changes in an attempt to better manage my emotions — for myself and for my children. I took a break from drinking alcohol. I went running regularly. I gave up coffee and went to bed earlier. I picked up the ukulele and started playing and singing again. And after a month, I felt a heck of a lot better.

If you can relate, and you're interested in ways you can teach your children about managing emotions, here are some tips:

  • Model self-care. Show your kids that you're actively engaging in activities that make you feel better. Go for walks, play music, read, paint, connect with friends or spend time outside. Do things that make you happy.
  • Model self-soothing. When you notice that you're feeling stressed and triggered, how do you calm down? Maybe it's deep breathing. It could be listening to music. Puzzles are great. Find whatever works to keep you from spiraling downward, and show your kids how you do it.
  • Explicitly talk about how you're taking care of yourself. Whenever you're practicing self-care or self-soothing, talk about it in front of your children. Use statements like: "I'm going for a run because it makes my brain and body feel better" or "When I'm stressed, I like to draw, because it gives me something else to focus on and calms me down." That will help your kids connect the dots between the activity you're engaging in and the intention behind it.
  • Make an emotional regulation toolbox with your kid. When I was a teacher at the Centerpoint School, an alternative high school in Winooski, one of our standard practices was to help students create their own toolbox that they could access whenever they felt triggered. Inside the box, there might be fidget toys, coloring pages, music, books — whatever worked for them. My partner and I have done this with our own children and learned that they both like to do puzzles in their bedroom when they're upset. It's amazing how quickly they can calm down after connecting those interlocking pieces for five or 10 minutes.
  • Educate yourself. There are some great some books on emotional regulation. I'd recommend The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, as well as Raising Good Humans by Hunter Clarke-Fields. Additionally, check out everything Vermont-based Alyssa Campbell and the wonderful folks at her company, Seed & Sew, have to offer.

I've been doing a lot better lately, but weekday mornings continue to be stressful. Last week, we were running late and I was trying to get both daughters to put on their coats so we could head out to the car. Unfortunately, Penelope had other plans as she continued to play with her baby dolls. As my pulse began to race and the tone of my voice changed, I heard Coraline's little voice.

"Dad, just breathe," she told me. So I did. And it was just what I needed.

Keegan Albaugh is the founder and executive director of Burlington-based Dad Guild, a nonprofit that supports and empowers fathers by offering opportunities for connection, education and community engagement.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Get a Grip"