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When I tell parents that one of the biggest influences on their children is how they regulate their own emotions and model that for their children, they react differently. Some nod and say, “that makes sense.” Yet I’ve had my share of eye-rolling and comments like “I don’t want to talk about my feelings – I want to talk about my child’s behavior.” 

I get it.

I’m a behavioral psychologist and a behavioral scientist. I’m all about behavioral science and neuroscience – and that’s what I use to help people do more of what really matters.

Yet emotions are science. They are not fluff or mush or voodoo.

These aren’t some skills you “might” need as a parent. These are THE skills you’ve got to have.

I’m going to be straight with you. If you want to next-level your relationships at work and home, master this skill. If you want to be lost and suffer in your relationships, ignore it. 

But please don’t give up because you CAN do this.

When I have a real skeptic, I will bring up my work with high performers like elite soldiers and athletes who, if they consistently apply these skills, can identify and leverage emotion to reach extremely high levels of performance.

When I was training for my Ph.D., we ran a step-down group for soldiers who were finishing exposure-based treatment for PTSD. A younger soldier told the group that he had never been afraid while he served.

I knew these men and women very well. I winced for him. I knew what was coming.

A former soldier who had served in many armed conflicts in an elite unit looked calmly at him and told him, in so many words: 

“I’m really glad you were lucky enough to make it out. I have no idea how you did it without fear. Fear makes you not dead. Without fear in combat, you’re running blind. Training and teamwork help you move through that fear, but you’ve got to recognize it.”

Fortunately, they went pretty easy on the guy. They supported him in then talking about the many times he admitted he had been afraid. Instead of viewing fear as a weakness, he saw it was a gift.

That phrase has always stuck with me – “fear makes you not dead.” If that doesn’t implode your shame around feeling fear, I’m not sure what will.

As a parent, you have to be very aware of fear – this emotion motivates so much of our behavior as parents. There is nothing so fierce or primal as the fear of your child’s safety.

The battlefield of parenting is a bit like combat. You’re fighting for the people beside you more than the cause. If you ignore your own emotions as a parent – which includes avoiding them, compartmentalizing them, or blaming them on your child or partner, you might also “die,” so to speak, on that battlefield as well. Either way you won’t be able to parent in a values-aligned way.

What’s in this Self Awareness Article for Parents?

  • Use your emotions

  • The neuroscience of emotion

  • The Fight or Flight Response

  • Freeze, Relax, and Connect

  • What happens in the brain when you’re stressed

  • Why you need emotional regulation

  • Six steps for emotional regulation

  • What to do when everything else fails

  • Always do what matters

  • Services offered by Momentum Psychology


Let’s be clear.

When I say emotion, I mean the constellation of physiological sensations and reactions caused by your autonomic nervous system when it scans your environment. These experiences later get associated through human language with various labels including more basic ones like ‘anger’ or ‘sadness’ and more complex ones like ‘disillusioned’ or ‘betrayed.’ 

Yet, let’s stick with the physiological aspect for now. Human language really confuses things.

The Neuroscience of Emotion

Take a moment right now. Think about a time that you had an angry discussion with your child or partner. 

If you close your eyes and immerse yourself in that memory, you’ll start to replay it in your mind. You will likely start to feel tremors of the original episode just like watching a scary movie can make you jump.

What do you notice in your body? 

Can you notice any of these small changes in your body – heart beating faster, increase in body temperature, making fists, rapid speech, muscle tension, stomach discomfort, tunnel vision, or frowning? You just experienced your nervous system.

The limbic system is a group of neural structures in the brain work together to affect feelings of motivation and reward, learning, fear, hunger, thirst and the production of hormones that help regulate the autonomic nervous system. It includes structures such as the hypothalmus, amygdala, and hippocampus.

Basically, the primary function of our brain is as a don’t-get-killed machine. When the sensory input comes in from our eyes or ears, for example, our brain is asking, “Am I safe? Are we safe?”

It’s pretty primitive. Evolutionarily, our limbic system was built for external threats like wild animals or invading tribes. Yet now those wild animals are people in our day-to-day lives driving on the road with us or working or living with us and invading tribes are anyone who could even possibly negatively impact our child in any way. If our brain detects these stimuli or triggers as a threat, then there is going to be a physiological reaction.

And bad news. You don’t have absolute control over this reaction. No one does. If you had to think about turning it on in a true emergency like swerving to miss another car, you’d be dead. This system works much faster than the more evolved, but slower prefrontal cortex or thinking part of the brain.

And more bad news. It takes precedent over higher-order cognition controlled by the prefrontal cortex. It makes sense though. What does being able to run financial models or litigate a case mean if you’re dead?

Without going into the science too much, here is a very basic framework of how the limbic system and autonomic nervous system work together.

Sympathetic Nervous System – “Fight or Flight” Response

Graphic by Arienne Missimer. Polyvagal theory is one of many different neuroscience theories of emotion. This theory includes three systems: 1) fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system), 2) social engagement or “relax and connect” response (parasympathetic – ventral vagal), or 3) freeze response (parasympathetic – dorsal vagal).

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). We need both to survive, and they work in tandem.

The SNS drives the “fight or flight” response. Its job is activation and survival. It’s fueled by cortisol and adrenaline. We have the urge to fidget, run, kick, hit, avoid, or escape.

It is also very helpful. It gets us ready to do things like run from predators or get prepared to deliver a presentation or perform in an athletic event.

A full discussion of the complex neural pathways and processes involved here is beyond the scope of this article and you can read, watch, and listen to more here and here and here. However, two basic neural systems worth mentioning are the amygdala and the hippocampus. (Check out Dr. Dan Siegal’s “hand model of the brain” – an easy way to explain to kids).

The amygdala is the “alarm” of the limbic system. It reacts to outside sensory information and also to internal sensations. It’s like a very intense drill sergeant shouting orders one after the other – Run. Escape. Hide. Fight.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that translates our moment-to-moment experience into memory, so it’s like a file clerk, always filing things away and pulling them out and throwing them at us as soon as the drill sergeant orders. (In the example above, when I asked you to remember an angry episode if you felt any sensations in your body that was because your hippocampus and other brain regions retrieved information about past events. It also facilitates the movie scene imagery from past events that your brain can project although the real situation has passed.)

When we are getting dysregulated with our children, it is usually an SNS or fight-or-flight reaction. Often the information coming in is triggering the amygdala which is signaling the hippocampus to recall other situations to draw on to evaluate the threat. In survival situations, the brain has a “negativity bias.” If I have had more negative experiences that relate to this situation, that’s likely what it will come up with. It never helped our ancestors to think positively about warring tribes or attacking wolves.

So, in relationships that matter to us, especially with our children who are disadvantaged by a partially developed prefrontal cortex, our task is to leverage our parasympathetic nervous system for connection. If you’re at a 9 out of 10 on a scale of SNS arousal, you can’t “reason” your way out of it. You can’t tell your brain to “calm down.” Language is more of a prefrontal cortex thing, not a limbic system thing.

That’s not the way your brain is built. You also can’t lecture your kids out of SNS arousal. That’s not the way their brains are built. You can’t uptake information or reason when your brain thinks you’re being attacked by a bear.

Parasympathetic Nervous System - “Freeze” and “Relax and Connect” Responses

The parasympathetic nervous system drives other responses and is powered by the vagus nerve. Unlike the SNS, it is fueled by a neur

In general, the PNS system has several functions. It’s main function is to regulate all of the SNS functions and do things like regulating body temperature, metabolism, digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate and breathing. Another function is facilitating the immobilization or “freeze” response that is associated with the dorsal vagus nerve. Your heart rate slows, your breathing slows, and your blood pressure drops. This is a response we borrowed from more primitive animals like reptiles who defend by “playing dead.” Once you reach complete dorsal vagal shutdown you experience absent-mindedness, dissociation, and depersonalization and, in extreme cases, you may pass or lose consciousness or faint. Earlier stages of this freeze response are what is associated with burnout. The SNS has been active for so long without PNS recovery that the system collapses.

Oxtyocin is a neurotransmitter that can work in conjunction with the PNS to fuel connection especially between parent and child. (Just note though that oxytocin is not all lollipops and rainbows. There is some recent research to suggest that it favors the internal family and can increase protectionism from outside influences. So, this is part of where the “Mama” or “Papa” Lion comes from.”

What Happens In the Brain When You’re Stressed

During sustained stress, the amygdala processes emotional sensory information more rapidly and less accurately (can’t read the room), dominates hippocampus function (memories will be more negative), and disrupts prefrontal cortex processes (confused thinking). Here are several other ways that stress impacts us:

  • Increases reactive aggression and increases sensitivity to social triggers for aggression

  • Interestingly, and quite depressingly, acting out aggression (yelling at others, physical acts of aggression) actually lowers stress (glucocorticoids decrease) and can cause release of dopamine

  • Stress increases impulsivity

  • Stress impairs decision-making and causes brain to perseverate on negative information

  • Stress impairs our ability to engage and connect with others*

  • Sustained stress compromises working memory, judgement, and executive functioning

  • Stress impairs risk assessment – some research to suggest that women can shift towards more risk-averse while men are more likely to be more risk-taking

  • Stress decreases empathy and increases selfishness and egotism (makes sense really from an evolutionary standpoint of survival, but not helpful in parenting – maybe this is what’s behind that phrase, “When I was growing up, my dad would have _!”)

  • During times of stress that involve intense fear, it is very easy to “learn” behaviors, and much more difficult to “unlearn” it

*Notably, there is some research that suggests that, in general, men are more likely to tend towards a “fight or flight” response during times of stress. While some women are more likely to tend towards “tend and befriend” responses that cause them to seek social connection and support.
When we are stressed, we are not good at engaging and connecting with others. That part is offline, and we’re running on autopilot.

Emotional Regulation is the Single Most Important Parenting Tool

From an interpersonal neurobiological perspective, emotional regulation is about getting back to the social engagement system and the “relax and connect” response.

Hopefully, if you’re this far, you believe that emotion regulation is a thing and it’s important. 

Ok, so what can you do about it? 

Back to the angry episode with your child or partner. Remember that episode.

Typically, the emotion of anger is powered by our SNS system and often a fight response. Anger generally functions to help us protect ourselves or others. This means protecting our (or our child’s) physical bodies from external threats and protect us (our child’s) internally, specifically our more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, fear, and shame. It’s our emotional armor.

Evolutionarily, if our food or family were threatened by a warring tribe or wild animal, anger could make us feel and seem more powerful and threatening quickly when we had no weapons. You got no survival points for being a “team player” in that world.

And now today even though those external threats are gone, the people we love most bring that armor out the most often. They can hurt us the most. Hurt people can really hurt people – especially those they love.

How can a grown adult actually be angry enough to yell at our younger children? How can that be protecting them? Well, because that’s not the way the brain sees it. If our child hurts us enough, the protection response can arise unconciously. It could be triggered from feeling similar emotions after being treated unfairly or hurt by our parents, partners, or bosses. Unless we’re aware, we can’t tell the difference. (Check out this video on anger and why it’s healthy sometimes.)

Steps for Parents to Regulate Emotion

1. Notice the hook.

It may be your child’s “disrespect” or “acting out.” It may be your partner forgetting to do a task or making a sibling argument worse by yelling. Once you start noticing the hook, you can regulate much more quickly. If you can’t catch it at the moment, that’s ok. Think about the angry episode, replay it and evaluate for your hooks. (Common ones for many parents: a threat to child’s personal safety, performance, relationships, defiance, “disrespect”, embarrassment or shame, or fighting with siblings).

2. When you feel the hook, press pause and acknowledge and accept reality without reacting.*

Anger feels like a surge of energy for me. It feels like that feeling I had as a kid in a wave pool when the wave would rise suddenly. I can see that crest and feel it. What’s it like for you?

Start with physical sensations if you can (“I notice my heart is racing and my stomach is in knots.”) Acknowledge thoughts, emotions, and sensations with openness and curiosity towards yourself (“I’m having the thought that something bad is going to happen to my child”) and others (“I’m noticing my child is pulling away from me. What is going on with him?”).

3. While acknowledging thoughts and emotions, take a few breaths.

Top athletes and high performers know that it’s all about the EXHALE. Focus on making your exhales as long as you can. Think about making room, not getting rid of stress.

One of my favorite breathing exercises to do every day is box breathing.

  • Close your eyes or rest your gauge.

  • INHALE through nose while counting to four slowly. Feel and focus on air entering your lungs (this should be a sensory exercise where you’re really focusing on five senses including the feeling and sounds of your breathing)

  • GENTLY HOLD your breath while counting to 4. Try not to clamp nose or mount, just avoid inhale/exhale or effectively breath neutral for 4 seconds.

  • Begin to slowly EXHALE (through nose primarily actually) for 4 seconds. (Nose breathing is recommended generally unless you’re exercising)

  • Repeat these steps at least three times.

To make this more intense, increase the count to 4 – 7 – 8. Inhale for count of 4. Gently hold for count of 7, and exhale for count of 8.

If your SNS response is very intense, deep breathing can cause more stress. (Yes, there is such a thing as relaxation-induced panic).

If so, you may have to do some kind of physical movement – walk the dog, do some push-ups, or run up the stairs to offload that cortisol and adrenaline and try deep breathing again. You’re going to use that breath to offload cortisol and adrenaline and surf the wave. (Interesting fact: Service dogs trained for emotional support can actually smell the cortisol on our breath, so when you breathe, you’re literally breathing out stress hormones!)

4. Connect with your body by grounding.

You can push your feet into the floor like it’s sand on a beach. If sitting, you can also push your back against a chair to feel the contact.

For example, our kitchen island is the place where we connect in the evening after our day in a wonderful way. Yet sometimes it can turn into chaos. When that happens and I see the wave of frustration or anger cresting, I will press my hands into the cold marble countertop and push my feet into the floor to the ground and surf the wave.

5. Connect with your values.

Your parenting values can be a powerful touchstone for choosing a new behavior instead of going with the same programmed one.

What kind of parent do you want to be right now? Remember that you CANNOT CONTROL the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors of others. Perhaps you can influence them when you’re regulated, but certainly NOT when you’re out of control.

And all we CAN control is our behavior – how we choose to respond. Anger energizes and makes us feel powerful (and activates are dopamine-driven reward system), which works great with warring tribes and wild animals. Yet anger isn’t a bad emotion. It’s necessary for survival.

However, holding on to it in relationships and letting it dictate your behavior can have a big price.

What would it mean to catch your anger and let it go? What would you be doing if you were acting as the parent you want to be? Connecting with your child? Showing them, not telling them? What are you missing when you react? What more could you learn about your child if you got curious?

This is a go-to for athletes. They visualize that moment the ball goes through the net. They hear the swoosh, feel it. Visualize hugging your child if that’s it for you. See it in your mind. Practice it. Then execute it.

*Please note here that you think that you may be suffering from parental burnout, this will be very hard. Your nervous system has to recover. The steps 1 – 4 above can help, and then actually taking time for yourself to practice these skills and to prioritize parasympathetic recovery.

6. Choose and do what matters.

Choose how you want to respond in this situation. Do you want to further regulate and seek help from your partner? Do you want to connect with your child and provide some coaching until you can problem solve?

If you lose it from the beginning and yell at your child or lash out, you’ve already acted away from your values. THAT IS OK! You are human. Messing up is allowed.

When you notice, if it aligns with your values, you can do one of the hardest things. Own your mistake, commit to working on it, and tell your child. “I am so sorry that I reacted that way. I want to be a safe place for you to feel what you feel. I am committed to working to get there. What did you need from me then?” (If you struggle with making or accepting heartfelt apologies, check out this podcast episode!)

If your brain is screaming right now, “But that will just teach them to think that they can run over me” or “Other people aren’t going to treat them like this and give them medals for second place” or some other rules or shoulds, we’re going to talk about that soon! Bookmark for now and trust me!

When All Else Fails

There is a point where the SNS reaches a boiling point which is often called “flooding.” Some researchers have suggested that when your heart rate is over 100 beats per minute you are completely compromised. 

If this happens, then there’s a different approach. We’re going for a Hail Mary pass here.

  1. When you notice your physical sensations are hitting a boiling point, press pause for yourself. Ask your child or loved one to ‘bookmark’ or ‘press pause’ on the conversation until everyone is calm.

    (Tip: One of my favorite things to do here, as a parent, is intentionally choosing some quick grounding. I have practiced that before I respond to my children, I will say their name. This gets their attention – super helpful if your kiddo has ADHD. If I’m angry, I say my child’s name very slowly to slow me down verbally and often say a pet name (e.g. “honey,” “sweetie,” or “bud”) to cue me to put on the brakes. If I feel I can calmly touch my child and they are ok with that, I may put a gentle hand on their shoulder or hand or near them on a counter or something.Nonverbal cues like this are very powerful in an attachment relationship. The brain releases oxytocin and can shift into the social engagement system, which can pull you out of fight or flight. If I was experiencing intense anger, I would not do this, and might bookmark and pivot away or ask my partner for tag team. )

  2. EVERYONE take a 20 – 30 minute break from the conversation (so create physical distance) and, if possible, do something physical to shift and offload cortisol (e.g., physical grounding like dropping anchor, take a walk, etc.) If there is any threat of physical safety (e.g., a child might hurt themselves or a sibling), then eyes on supervision must be maintained during this period.

    (Of course, if there is a serious safety threat, then you should seek crisis services such as calling 911, going to the nearest behavioral health unit for children or ER, or calling mobile crisis if your area has that service.)

  3. Then practice the skills from above.

Always Do What Matters

Understanding the neuroscience of emotions can go a long way in helping you manage them. It’s also quite validating to know you’re not losing your mind.

It’s the same system that pumps you up for a game or performance, but the context and players are different. If you can change your relationship with your emotions, they can help you do amazing things in life and work.

If you choose to use these techniques to regulate your emotion, please don’t do them because that’s what you’re supposed to do to be a “good parent” which really actually means a “perfect parent.”

After working for parents for over a decade, I am ready to kick this “good parent” myth to the curb. That’s the shame talking.

There are a million ways to be a good enough parent, and not even one way to be a perfect one.

A parent who cares about their child and is willing (not able, not thrilled about it) to change is what they need. You don’t need to say or do everything right. 

If you choose to do this, do it because it matters to YOU. And if you’re not sure already, figure out why. Really think about who you want to be as a parent.

Do it because you want to be fully aware and engaged in your life.

Do it because you love your partner and your child.


Me doing what matters to me. I don’t have any photos of my epic parent fails where I wasn’t. Don’t be fooled. We all fail. Failure is not a person, it’s an event. Remember – it’s all grist for the mill, fellow traveler!



At my Charlotte, NC therapy office, I offer a variety of mental health services. I also offer online therapy in North Carolina and soon Florida and several other states! In my therapy practice, I work primarily with busy professionals and parents. I provide treatment for anxiety, stress, trauma, vicarious trauma, and life transitions and parenting for parents of children with anxiety- and trauma-related issues. Please contact my office to hear more about the many ways I can help you thrive and be successful at work and at home.


If you are experiencing stress but don’t think those symptoms have risen to the level of impacting your psychological health, then executive coaching may be more your style. I offer those services to professionals including healthcare providers in my coaching practice.


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