Self-regulation – why it’s important for stepfamilies & co-parents

self regulationSimply put self-regulation is being able to manage feelings (particularly big feelings) so they don’t intrude heavily on our relationships or when going about our day-to-day life. It relates to the ability to resist losing it in situations where we are upset, frustrated or just plain pissed off or to find composure when we are super excited. We are meant to learn and master the art of being able to calm down when big feelings start to take over as children, growing up. We learn through watching our parents (and other  important adults in our life) manage their own feelings and behaviour. In terms of life skills, self-regulation is as important as toilet training and learning to talk.

When talking about what self-regulation is, it is also important to state what it is not. Self-regulation is NOT about ‘not feeling’ or suppressing feelings. Locking feelings away can cause just as much trouble as any outburst. There is also nothing wrong with having big feelings. Big feelings are just as valid as modest or short-lived feelings and it’s okay for kids and grown-ups to feel whatever it is they feel at any point in time. What is important is how those feelings are managed, how we behave when we are experiencing them and the impact on others of our behavioral choices when we are caught up in an emotionally charged moment.

As parents, stepparents and co-parents we all carry responsibility for nurturing our children towards being able to recognize, acknowledge and express what they’re feeling, without causing damage to themselves, their relationships or those around them.   We also carry the responsibility for making sure we are practicing what we preach.

Research (and real life) shows that when parents/stepparents react with emotional intensity towards one another and children are aware of, or exposed to, the emotional fall out of those interactions, children’s distress tends to escalate and, whatever the problem at hand, it is less likely to get resolved. This means that besides being sad or distressed, kids can miss out on things because decisions (about things that effect them) are not made or are not made in a timely fashion.

Now we know that whatever your age, managing strong negative emotions is sometimes much easier said than done. We also know that however skilled we are with regard to self-regulation, there will inevitably be times when we “flip our lid” and lose it. After all, we are only human and parenting can be hard, emotionally charged work which has to be tackled alongside other challenges we might be experiencing in our professional and relational adult life.

In stepfamilies, the self-regulation process is made even more challenging because of there being extra demands on stepparents and parents as a result of the need to communicate and cooperate with people you may not like or respect or who have hurt you or someone you love, perhaps in a highly emotional context and/or in situations where one or more parties may still carry emotional wounds inflicted by divorce, unresolved court proceedings or judicial decisions regarding parenting arrangements. The challenges experienced may be further complicated by difficult temperaments, psychopathology, illness, bereavement etc. But whatever the challenges to keeping your cool, how you react to things is how your children/stepchildren learn to react to things. Ultimately you have to be in control of yourselves if you want them to be in control of themselves into the future: parental/step-parental regulation leads to child self-regulation.

Besides being a good role model, there are other reasons as to why managing your own energy state, and all the emotions and behaviours that go with that, is healthy and helpful. We’ve summarised what we think are the top four reasons below:

  1. Self regulation helps us to respond not react.

As a stepparent being aware of, and tuning in to, your feelings allows you to make a conscious decision about how best to respond, express our feelings and behave —instead of a knee-jerk, emotionally charged, reaction.  Recognizing that perhaps you are feeling the heat rising in your body and your stomach tightening; that you are feeling angry and defensive, helps you to stop and pause, giving you time to not only consider what is happening for yourself and for the other person, but to also consider possible solutions. There really is something to be said for buying yourself time to gain composure and perspective.

Staying calm (at least on the outside) also tends to result in a lot less remorse for having lost it; fewer nights going to bed ruminating about what happened or what you could have said or should have said; regret for an email sent in anger; or feeling guilty about the potentially negative impact on the kids of their being exposed to parental conflict or discord between their two homes.

2. It helps is to contain conflict and to protect the kids

While remaining (outwardly) calm is hard work, the benefits are far-reaching and has payoffs far into the future, for yourself and the kids. This is due in part to it increasing the chances of the lines of communication with the other house being kept open and, hopefully, respectful. It also increases the chances of those involved in the conversation feeling understood and any conflict between the adults not escalating into a war of the roses type scenario – something which we know can have a detrimental effect on children’s health and wellbeing.

Conversely, poor self-regulation increases the possibility of a parent/stepparent making inappropriate and unhelpful comments or statements on social media, whilst talking to friends and family, as well perhaps having negative reactions in face-to-face interactions with members of the other household at changeovers, soccer games or school assemblies (potentially exposing or involving the children in that emotional distress).

3. It’s good for mental wellbeing.

When children are able to regulate their emotional responses, they are more likely to have the emotional resources to cope with stress, maintain healthy friendships, and the capacity to focus, maintain concentration and learn.  One can also assume that similar benefits accrue for adults who are able to successfully regulate their own feelings and behavior.

4. It creates safety and strength in family relationships

Watching the adults in their life appropriately manage their own feelings and behavior provides children with a sense of safety and security. In this way the ability to self-regulate your emotions can greatly assist you as a parent or stepparent to develop a stronger relationship with your child/stepchild

It also helps in adult relationships as well – people will be less likely to conceal their thoughts and feelings from you or avoid bringing up concerns or problems (with you) if they not worried about or bewildered by mood shifts and unpredictable behaviour.couple talking

Self-regulation is vital for children, parents and stepparents to manage the normal ups-and-downs that come with shared parenting. At the end of the day, it’s really just not fair to expect our children/stepchildren to have to deal with extra problems and baggage because our ability to self-regulate may, at times, be poor. The good news is that it is a learned skill that can be strengthened with a bit of self-awareness, practice and training.

If you fancy a bit of homework, try the activity below:

Self-Regulation Reflection Activity

  1. What are your stressors or triggers? For example, lack of sleep, missing lunch, long day coupled with grizzly child etc.
  2. List the things that cause an emotional reaction for you – for example, ‘I get really angry when…’
  3. How emotionally “literate” are you? That is, how skilled are you in noticing when you’re in an emotionally reactive state?
  4. What are the self-regulation strategies that you may already be doing to successfully help moderate your behavior and your energy levels? For example, you might play your favourite tunes when exercising cleaning the house, go for a walk/run when feeling upset, or take a warm shower before bed to help “switch off”.
  5. What are other strategies that you could use to prevent you ‘losing it’ in the future? for example, ‘I can stop, breathe deeply and make myself a cup of tea before I respond to that email’