Co-Regulating with my Children: Staying Calm and Connected When I’d Rather Melt Down

This morning was a little chaotic in my house. My daughter, age five, woke up in a really emotional mood. She was grouchy about everything, falling apart at the slightest inconvenience or thing going wrong. It was evident that there was something deeper going on—that the thing she was upset about was just the physical manifestation of something much deeper and unseen, which she just couldn’t quite access.

By 10:00am, I was already at the end of my rope. I had been patient and compassionate through every one of her meltdowns, trying my best to remain calm and connected with each round of tears. I kept trying to get to the bottom of the problem, but we just couldn’t get there. I was proud of myself for keeping it together. Days like this trigger me. I hate seeing my children sad. Like most parents, their tears bring out in me an intense need to protect them, to solve the problem, and to keep them from feeling any more pain. But I can’t always address the problem. Sometimes, they’re just having a tough day emotionally and there isn’t a tangible solution. The only thing I can do is bear witness to their pain, shepherd them through it, and give whatever comfort I can. I do my best, but sometimes the emotional overwhelm of absorbing my kids’ pain becomes too much. I get testy, irritable. I misinterpret my anxiousness about their feelings as frustration, and I lose my patience.

That happened today at approximately 10:01am when my daughter had her hundredth meltdown of the day. This time, it was about a letter she was writing to Santa. Like I said, she’s five. So, her handwriting is enormous. She went through what felt like an entire ream of paper trying to get her letter to fit on a single page with no luck, and that just utterly broke her. She plunged into a fit much bigger than (what I believed) the situation called for, with big watery tears spilling out of her eyes and down her cheeks. She was so frustrated—pushed to the point of no longer being able to keep it in. She yelled. She shoved the papers away. She sobbed.

And friend, I got so triggered.

All I wanted to do was snatch the papers away and tell her to calm down. I wanted to tell her this wasn’t a big deal, and she was being dramatic. I wanted to completely invalidate the very real experience she was having because it was too emotionally draining on me. But that’s when I remembered that this is how we teach little girls to be accommodating. To make themselves small for the benefit of others. To swallow their feelings because someone might say their feelings are too much for them to deal with. And this is absolutely not what I want for my daughter.

So, I went through the grounding phrases I use when I’m triggered by what’s going on with my kids:

It’s my job to stay calm and connected.

I am the calm amidst the chaos.

I am the adult who can self-regulate. My children don’t know how to do that yet.

My children deserve for me to stay present with them in their feelings.

After repeating these things to myself, I took some calming breaths and rounded the kitchen table to sit beside her. I walked her through some options—some things we could do to solve this problem. But she didn’t want solutions. Not really. She just wanted someone to understand. To see her pain and to tell her that it’s okay, that she’s safe, that she can feel whatever she needs to feel.

It took every ounce of calm and patience I had to navigate those very tense ten or so minutes. Calming her meant giving my calm to her—summoning it from somewhere deep within myself and telegraphing it to her. It came at a cost. By the time the episode was over, she was feeling nice and calm, and I was completely drained.

These are the things we do for our children. This is how we break cycles that lead to small and quiet little girls who don’t think their feelings matter. It’s so hard. It’s also so important.

I tell this story for two reasons.

First, I tell it so that you won’t feel bad for the times you struggle to keep your cool. This is normal, something we all experience. There doesn’t have to be shame about that—not as long as you are working to give yourself compassion while also practicing the hard work of staying calm and connected.

Second, I tell it so that you can see that you can do it. I screw up at this all the time. I lose my cool. I don’t handle it well. I have to apologize. But with effort and practice, and a whole lot of mindfulness, I’m getting there. I’m also learning from some really great moms who speak about gentle/respectful parenting. One of them is The Considerate Mama, and the other is High Impact Club. These are great resources for learning how to stay calm and connected in these difficult moments.

It’s a journey, friend. It takes time. Wherever you are on that journey, just know you’re doing great. Keep working. Keep moving forward. We are working on being the best parents we can be, just like our kids are learning how to be the best kids they can be. We’re all learning on our feet. And we’ll eventually get there.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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