Does this sound familiar? I’m working all day and then get home for the one hour that includes the nighttime routine. My child is screaming to avoid a bath, delaying her books, calling out after I put her to sleep. I’m sitting in the hallway thinking: this is the hour I get with my child after being gone all day? This feels awful! I might as well have gone to that dinner and just seen her in the morning.

I get it. For me, that window of time between getting home from work and putting my children to sleep is incredibly full and can be incredibly stressful. So much pours out of my kids. They’ve missed me. They’ve had some tough moments at school. They each want my full attention but have to share me with their siblings. They want to stay up later to get more time with me.  

Now, let me be clear. The above description sounds civilized, but this is what the scene actually looks like as I come into my house at 6pm and attempt to join my kids at the dinner table: my two older kids start arguing about which chair I should sit in. My youngest son takes his cup of water and pours it out on the floor. My daughter then runs to me screaming, “I want to sit on your laaaaaaap!” and my oldest responds very rationally, “You’re not allowed to sit on laps during dinner, Mommy has said that a thousand times,” only for his sister to scream back “Stop talking to me!” in a shrill voice. My youngest runs to me and grabs me at the ankle screaming “I want lap too!” and then I overhear my oldest mumbling, “So unfair, they always get what they want because they’re younger.” I look at my watch.  Somehow it’s only 6:01. This is going to be a long hour.

Now let’s talk about Bang for your Buck Parenting. Because if I want one moment to maximize my impact, here it is. How I show up right here, right now, in this total shit-show is the most important parenting I’ll do all week. More important than the time I’ll get tonight reading with my oldest after the younger two are sleeping, more important than picking up my daughter from gymnastics later in the week and watching her run to me in excitement, more important than the quiet time I’ll get tomorrow morning building blocks with my youngest.  

How we show up to our kids when they are emotionally dysregulated – a psychological way of saying very upset, tantruming, unable to control themselves – directly translates into how they develop their own coping skills. I could write forever about the relationship between co-regulation (the way a parent helps a kid calm down) and self-regulation (the way a person can calm himself down), but here’s the main point: when our children are feeling overwhelmed and out of control (read: each of my children at the dinner table), they look to us and notice our coping skills. Then, they take in what they see and this forms the foundation of their own coping skills.  

We are our children’s future mirrors – how we are present and how we regulate act as a preview to our children of their own self-soothing abilities. If we can maintain composure during their outbursts, they learn that all storms can be weathered and that the ocean will eventually find it’s way back to calm. If we speak to their feelings instead of their behaviors, we are helping to wire in them the healthiest circuitry for stress. The circuit might be summed up as saying: I will get upset, but I will be able to understand myself and calm myself down eventually. This is the essence of resilience and grit.  

What does this look like in practice? In those tough moments, I might be thinking, “I come home from work to this? Why do I even bother, next time I’ll come home after you’re all sleeping!” … but then I think about making the most bang for my buck. So instead, I might find myself saying, “Wow! Everyone is having a hard time.  There’s not enough of mommy to go around, huh?” But maybe the situation is too intense and my brain cannot access these words. Maybe I can just stand there and say, “Big feelings here. I’m going to take a few deep breaths.” What a powerful way to promote healthy coping skills to our kids.

Maybe I can just stand there for a few moments, amidst the screaming and leg grabbing; I can place one hand on my chest and the other on my stomach and take 5 very slow deep breaths, modeling regulation in the face of tension. I promise you: your kids will stop in their tracks and just stare at you, marveling at your calm presence and feeling hopeful that they, too, will be able to do this for themselves one day. After all, they’re not just staring. They’re imprinting.  They’re internalizing.

Now one final thing: I’m hearing reverberations of my clients saying to me, “Dr. Becky, I did it… but it didn’t work!” Here’s the thing: our children’s behavior is not a gauge for the meaningfulness of our impact. I always tell parents in my groups that there’s at least a 3-month lag between something we are “trying out” and visible change. Our kids are too smart to be swayed by any one-off event! Children are always watching and learning, and it takes an accumulation of consistent experiences to trust a change; after that trust develops, kids can start their own changing process.

Try This at Home:

  • You can be a Bang for your Buck Parent.  Show up during the times of stress and turmoil. 

  • When you have only a few moments with your kids and it’s a total shit-show, first talk to yourself.  Tell yourself, “Wow, here’s that moment Dr. Becky was talking about.  I’ve been gone all day but I have a moment now to do big-impact parenting.  Here we go…” Borrow my words and tell your kids something simple like, “Big feelings here.  I’m going to take a deep breath” and then do 5 deep breaths (click here for a description of how to take a deep breath that activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for bringing on calm and relaxation). 

  • Collect some data: see what this is like for you, how your kids responds, what happens next. 

  • Remember that your data you record might look like this for a while: “No change.  Kids are still yelling.  This is still difficult.” 

  • Remember that while these moments aren’t exactly enjoyable, they are the most impactfulYour effort to stay calm in the face of all this emotional mess is among the most important gifts you can give your child.  You’ll get the thank-you note in about 20 years.