You don’t need to learn how to control your emotions
So often, when I ask parents what they struggle with most when it comes to mindful parenting, they tell me it’s controlling their own emotions. They say things like:
- “I lose it when my child doesn’t listen”
- “I need to learn how to control my reactions”
- “I lose my temper too much”
- “I lose control when my child has a tantrum”
- “I can’t control my anger”
And the other thing they tell me (often in the same breath) is how stressed they are right now:
- “I have a newborn at home and I’m exhausted”
- “I have no family around to support me”
- “My kids are fighting all day long”
- “I’m struggling with post-partum anxiety”
- “I have no time to myself”
- “I’m worried that I’m failing”
And so I’m not at all surprised that they can’t control their reactions under those circumstances. Of course they can’t! If this is you too, listen up, mama! You don’t need to know how to control your emotions. Your problem is not that you cannot control your emotions and reactions in those difficult moments. The problem is that you expect yourself to be able to! Because you are focusing on the symptom instead of the cause.
What you’re talking about, when you say “I can’t control myself” is exercising self control. But when you focus on self control in those difficult moments, you set yourself up to fail. What you need to be focusing on instead, is self regulation. And they’re not the same thing!
What is self control?
Self control is about inhibiting impulses and urges. Stopping yourself from acting (or reacting) in a certain way in order to achieve a longer term goal or outcome. And it’s a complex skill that is rooted in the prefrontal cortex. In order to exhibit self control, we need to plan, we need to use reason to evaluate our options, and then we need to make a logical decision based on what we want the long term outcome to be. In short, we’re trying to avoid making a decision we’ll regret later.
What is self regulation?
Self regulation, on the other hand, is about managing stress. It is about uncovering the root cause of those impulses and urges and disrupting the stress cycle. When we are able to self regulate effectively, and manage our stress, we either reduce the urge or impulse or completely eliminate it. So we don’t actually need to exhibit self control any more.
Now don’t get me wrong, self control is important. But it’s not going to help you respond calmly to your child in those challenging moments.
Self regulation makes self control possible
Research has shown that a high stress load decreases our ability to control our impulses and urges. Why? Well, it has to do with the brain. Remember, self control is a skill that requires us to use our prefrontal cortex. Our thinking brain.
And what happens when we experience stress? The body goes into fight or flight mode. The stress response is triggered. And the prefrontal cortex goes offline. We are unable to access our thinking brain when we are stressed. Which means we are literally unable to access the higher order skills required to control our impulses. No matter how much “willpower” you have, it all goes out the window when you are under stress.
The problem with focusing on self control
What does that mean for you?
It means that when you are overwhelmed in the heat of the moment, you are physically unable to control your reactions. You cannot stop and think about the consequences of your actions. You cannot control your emotions. You cannot stop yourself from yelling at your child. Once your stress response is triggered, it’s too late for self control.
But we’ve been taught that self control is like a muscle. That we need to practice more. Try harder. Keep using it, and our willpower will become stronger. We’ll be able to resist.
And that’s simply not how the brain works.
In fact, when you focus on self control and you berate yourself for not trying harder, and for not having more control, you make things worse for yourself. You add to your stress load. Because now you feel like a failure. You give yourself a hard time. And that extra stress and pressure you’re putting on yourself has just made it even harder for you to control your reactions.
Focus on self regulation instead
Self regulation, not self control is the key here. You need to address the reasons why you’re lashing out. The reasons that you feel so overwhelmed. You need to take a look at your stress load.
The problem with stress is that it multiplies. Once you experience one stressor, you’re more susceptible to further stress. Your capacity to deal with stress becomes reduced, because you’re using up so much energy dealing with the first stress. And the more those stressors build up, the less energy you have. The more depleted you become. And now you have no energy left to resist those impulses.
So the first step is to notice those stressors. Learn to identify them early on, so you can put strategies in place to reduce them. Catch those impulses and urges before they even begin and put strategies in place to lower your stress levels so that the urges become weaker, or they disappear entirely. This is what self regulation really is. It’s not about how you “control” your emotions. It’s not about feeling calm all the time. It’s about awareness. It’s about being able to recognise when we’re not feeling calm and to manage that in effective ways so that we can bring our system back into balance.
So instead of asking how to control your emotions and giving yourself a hard time when you can’t do it, ask this question instead: Why now? Why is this reaction happening now? Where is the stress in my life? If you’re exhausted, lacking support, and juggling all the balls that busy mamas tend to juggle, then it’s time to cut yourself some slack. You’re not failing mama. You’re just stressed. And we can fix that.
The Mindful Little Mama
In fact, if you need some help to better manage your stress right now, you’re in luck! That’s exactly what I teach you how to do inside of my mindful parenting membership, The Mindful Little Mama. When you join the membership, you’ll get access to all the tools, resources and support you need to learn how to REALLY self regulate so you can reduce your reactivity, be the mama you want to be for your kids and break those generational cycles once and for all. Just head on over HERE to join us inside!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.