Every morning this summer has been almost identical in one infuriating way, despite the fact that we live in Atlanta, which during the summer can feel similar to the surface of the sun, my daughter throws a next level fit when I try to get her to wear shorts. We’ve all been there, the nonsensical fit over something so small and, if our kids could just see, also something for their benefit. The only problem with this morning was that we were late. I’m a therapist and I looked at the clock realizing that we were getting dangerously close to me having to do the walk of shame through my own waiting room, late for an appointment where I am the professional. I shoved her shorts on and she fought back, and as we got into a tango that could only be described as similar to a WWE Wrestlemania match, I started to scream. 

After drop off was done and I was in the car alone headed to my office, I experienced what I like to call a “moral hangover”, the “wow I wish I hadn’t done that” reflection on my own behavior. All parents experience this at times, even therapists that specialize in parenting. I say all of this because before I write anything about the importance of being emotionally regulated for our kids… I always want to declare loud for all to hear that I know this is HARD. Not only is it hard, but we are also challenged to do this hard thing repeatedly. When we’re late, when we’ve asked a million times, when we are being crushed by the mental load of everything it takes to be a mom. Woof. 

Lets start at the beginning, what is emotion regulation? In a panicked moment, I would describe it as not losing your shit. As a therapist, I would describe the concept of emotion regulation, as recognizing, understanding, and effectively managing one’s emotions. When applied to parenting, this principle underscores the critical role of parents in modeling healthy emotional behaviors for their children. Emotions are contagious, especially within the parent-child dynamic. Children look to their parents as emotional mirrors, absorbing and reflecting the emotional cues they observe. 

But why? Why is being an emotionally regulated parent one of the best things we can do for our kids, even above lots of reading, serving balanced meals, and coordinating all the other million demands that are part of the invisible load we carry? Parents who are able to regulate their own emotions create a ripple effect of emotional stability and security within the family unit. If we are able to stay calm, it not only improves the chances of our kids staying calm-ish in the moment or (more likely) returning to calm faster, but it also helps them learn how to manage their emotions better in the future. 

In most parent interactions, we have a goal in mind. It sounds kind of cold to describe it this way, but a lot of the hour-by-hour parenting comes down to helping our kids move through tasks and get to the end with their self-confidence and new skills in tact. We are helping little humans grow into big humans with the skill and confidence to survive in this world, and to have a good parent-child relationship that can eventually transition into a friendship in adulthood. What I have to anchor myself to when trying to model the emotional regulation that I want my children to have is that every other skill that I’m trying to teach, (shoe-tying, vegetable eating, shorts wearing, being remotely on time to anything… just to name a few), I will have another opportunity to teach. What is harder for me to do is undo the poor emotion regulation that I may model when trying to get them to move through these various tasks. On top of that, my emotion dysregulation (screaming in this example), usually doesn’t speed up the task at all. I laugh remembering one night that I lost it on my daughter and said in a whisper-yell, “go to sleep!!”, you can imagine that she did not, in fact, go to sleep in response to that. 

I tell clients and myself over and over that a situation is a huge success if we, as the parents, stay calm. Your child does not need to stay calm, they don’t even need to do what you want them to do, but if you stay calm (and even better if you hold whatever boundary is being set in the moment, if applicable), then that’s a win. The primary goal is not to get kids to do what you say, its to parent with the end goal in mind: raising emotionally balanced kids that know, thanks to our painstaking effort, how to handle tough emotions without unleashing on the people around them. They will learn from us that emotions come and go, we can ride the wave of them without being taken down, and we love and care for them in the end even when they are difficult or they have big emotions. 

Now lets talk about when this doesn’t happen… which I’ve stated, is more often that I would like even in my own household. Then what? We are human, we are not robots, sometimes we’re going to lose the battle with our emotions in the moment… all we can do is come back for another round, losing the battle does not mean we lose the war. In fact, whenever I’ve lost my ever-loving-mind on my kids, its an opportunity to model another skill they will need: how to repair. When the moment has passed as we are calm, you go back to your kids and you apologize, say what you wish you had done instead, and if you’re kids are the age where role-playing is fun… you can reenact the situation with it going differently for both of you to help improve the chances of it going well next time. 

I often tell clients that, if emotion regulation is not something that comes easily around your house (welcome to the club), the best place to start if you want to pursue counseling is for you, as the parent, to start…not your child. Studies show that kids emotion regulation changes when their parents are in counseling, even when the child never participates themselves. Kids don’t have the brain development to learn skills to manage emotions in my office on a Tuesday and then access them Saturday afternoon when you tell them its time to turn off the TV. 

Emotions are the building blocks of human experience, serving as the lens through which we interpret and interact with the world. From joy to sorrow, anger to love, each emotion carries its own weight, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. For children, who are still in the process of developing their emotional literacy, the role of parents in guiding and regulating these emotions is paramount. As with most wonderful things in life, it is both an immense honor to get to shape these tiny humans and a lot of work, and at times pressure. Just know that if you keep your eye on the prize: staying regulated yourself, the rest can and will fall into place. We have never messed it up too much to repair and in the end, we can give them the profound gift of emotional resilience and have the pleasure of enjoying the adults they become. 

Ashlyn is a therapist and owner of Atlanta Counseling Collective in Buckhead, ACC serves children, adults, and parents through individual and group counseling. She’s an Atlanta native, enjoying being back as an adult after going to boarding school for high school and Furman University and UGA for undergraduate and grad school. She lives with her two children, husband, and dog Haddie.