Parenting Well When Emotions Run High

Author: Beth Russell Ph.D.(C)

So how do they do it, those calm, collected parents? How do they make it through weeks of sleeplessness with a crying baby and stay in control of their emotions? Every family is different, and what works for one parent will not work for another. The important thing is to try a few different ways of dealing with your emotions until you find a way to cope that feels best for you. Here are some pointers to getting started:

Most people are not aware of their emotions before they reach a boiling point because low grade emotions (ones that aren't very intense) are easy to ignore or push to the side of our awareness. When our frustration levels are low we are usually capable of letting that frustration sit in the back of our minds while we focus on the activity at hand, whether it is driving to the post office or cleaning up after dinner. Most of us allow these emotions to stay in the background and we often miss them altogether, and mostly we can actually recover from these mid-range emotions because distractions can be an effective coping strategy - even without the intention of calming down. But when the intensity keeps building, when frustration or irritability go from manageable to explosive, just going about our usual activity is not likely to help – we need more than distraction, we need a plan.

Prevention is worth its weight in gold when it comes to coping with emotions like irritability, frustration, and anger. It is easier to calm down from a mid-range intensity emotion than from a high intensity emotion because when emotions run high we often lose the ability to slow down, monitor our impulses, and take steps to disengage from the difficult situation. It is hard to think straight when we are at the end of our emotional rope. People in high stress circumstances – like the sleepless nights of raising a baby – are in the perfect situation to practice regular emotion check-ins. The quickest way to do this is to ask yourself how you feel and to use emotion words to answer. “How am I? Angry? Sad? Jittery? Happy? Calm? Joyful?” Do not settle for the easy answer “fine” - we want to form the habit of using words that encourage us to be honest so that we can act to improve the situation, and “fine” doesn't give you any sense of what you feel. Build this quick check-in into the baby's 2 or 3 hour cycle of feeding and sleeping. After a feeding or diaper change, check in with yourself and if the intensity of your emotions is rising, it's time to take a break.

Start slowly if taking a break doesn't sit well with you: Put the baby in the safe spot you have set up and take just a couple of steps back – stay close enough to see the baby and far enough away that he or she is out of reach. Pull up a chair or sit on the floor, and stay there for one minute. Close your eyes and take long, deep breaths (there are other calming exercises, but focusing your attention on a few deep breaths without any other visual distraction is a good start). After one minute, pick the baby back up. Each time you take a break you can increase the distance between yourself and baby, waiting for slightly longer each time, until you are comfortable taking a few minutes for yourself in your own safe spot. Remember to take the baby monitor with you once you have gotten far enough that you can't see each other anymore.

If taking a break from the baby comes more easily to you, here are a few tips to keep in mind: Keep the baby monitor with you, and check in on the baby with a quick visit every 10 to 15 minutes or so until you feel calm enough to pick him or her up. Many parents find headphones helpful for staying a bit more removed from an inconsolable cry – the baby won't mind if you are listening to something while you rock, walk, and go about trying to soothe him or her. Giving yourself a little bit of mental space with this distraction can help reduce the piercing quality of your baby's cry and keep emotions at a low to moderate intensity, which will help you need fewer breaks and less time to calm down when you do need to put the baby down.

Parenting a young baby is hard work. As parents, we spend a lot of time trying to sort out what the baby needs from moment to moment – without much help from the baby, who can't tell us what's wrong or how to make things better. We get much, much better at understanding our babies' needs and schedule over time – by the time the baby is a month old, each parent is much more confident and capable than they were in the first few days after the baby was born. These skills are put to the test when the baby cries for long periods of time and sometimes there is nothing a parent can do to soothe them (remember, inconsolable crying is normal for some babies). When parents find themselves in this tough situation, the real test is not whether they can comfort the baby, but whether they can take care of themselves and support the baby safely at the same time. It may take a little time and effort, but just like any skill, making it through an inconsolable cry gets easier with practice.

10 Minute Activity

Here's a 10 minute activity to practice regaining emotional control when you feel a little too irritable, frustrated or angry:

Find a Spot to Sit
Find a spot to sit alone with few distractions - turn off the television, music, or computer. If you have a baby monitor with you, try to use one that has a sound activated setting or turn the volume down low.

Roll Your Head
Roll your head from shoulder to shoulder in slow half circles. People tend to hold tension in their neck and upper back, so taking a quick minute to loosen up those muscles can help you feel relaxed.

Take a Deep Breath
Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel your chest and belly expand when you inhale fully and notice that when you exhale, your relax. We use more muscles to expand our chest and inhale than we do to exhale, in fact, it takes considerably more effort to hold your ribcage open. It is simply easier to breathe out than in.

When you exhale, focus on letting go of the thoughts rattling around in your head. Just as your body will naturally let go of each breath, your mind can let go of the thoughts that come with being agitated.

Sit For As Long As You Can
Sit for as long as you can, focusing on breathing out and, with each exhale, letting go of what's on your mind. New thoughts will pop up each time you let one go, and that's okay – the point is to relax, to resist focusing on the things that are irritating you, and let your mind become less rigid or stuck on being upset. Some people find it helpful to whisper or say "let go" with each exhale, after a few breaths this out-loud cue might not be necessary anymore; like an acorn rolling downhill you'll build momentum once the process gets going and may be able to think about letting go of your thoughts instead.

Remember, the idea isn't to stop thinking, but to not get fixated on any one thought.