Fair Warning Parenting

Fair Warning Parenting

Modern parenting strategies have placed a strong emphasis on raising mentally healthy children by teaching them to regulate their emotions. Some parenting experts and influencers are great at only focusing on the models of what teaching a child to regulate emotions should look like. They act out hypothetical conversations and model how a parent should respond to the situations; they might even model the child initially responding negatively, but ultimately, these model conversations always seem to end with a child complying with their parent’s requests or suggestions.

Unfortunately, real-life conversations don’t always look like these models. Often, despite my best efforts to model appropriate behavior and clearly explain why something is not okay, I just feel like I’m negotiating with a terrorist. Further complicating these efforts to raise mentally healthy children by teaching them to regulate their emotions is the fact that, in order for a parent to teach a child to regulate their emotions, the parent must be able to regulate their own – and that’s not always easy. While these same experts acknowledge that this can be difficult and encourage parents to forgive themselves when they fall short, I can’t help but wonder if it is always good to teach kids about their own emotions in a calm or emotionally neutral environment.

If the goal of teaching kids to regulate their emotions is to help them develop healthy mental-health behaviors, then shouldn’t teaching them to recognize and respond appropriately to others’ emotions be equally important?

Finding the balance between modeling emotional regulation for my kids and teaching them the importance of respecting others’ emotions has been a huge struggle for me. I could argue that my kids are just especially difficult and that, in my own mother’s words, “nothing seems to work with them.” I could also argue that there is more and more evidence that many of the popular gentle parenting techniques don’t work for neurodivergent kids. But I think the most important factor to acknowledge in this struggle that I have had is my own mental health.

My mental health has been a major battle for me lately. Especially at work, I have been in survival mode, and while that is not my children’s burden to bear, it does inevitably affect the physical, mental, and emotional energy I have to parent them. There have been too many days when I have come home overstimulated and exhausted and simply could not deal with my kids whining, bickering, and arguing with me about everything.  I struggle to model regulating my emotions when I’m already so dysregulated, and I find myself lashing out at them too often, so I started giving my kids “fair warnings.”

On days that I come home feeling especially overstimulated, I am upfront with my kids about it. I tell them that I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious and that my patience is thin. I share with them the behaviors I would like to see from them and the behaviors that are going to push me over the edge. We’ve had a lot of conversations about anxiety and overwhelm, which have also helped my oldest to develop the language to deal with her own emotions. We’ve talked about decision fatigue, and I have regularly explained to my oldest that, while her anxiety causes her to always be worried about future events, I prefer to deal with the issues immediately at hand and don’t appreciate when she bombards me with concerns about things that are days or even weeks away. Essentially, I communicate to my kids that I am struggling to regulate my own emotions and therefore may not be able to respond to them in the best manner. I don’t think my kids should suffer the consequences of factors well beyond their control, but I also think it’s important for them to recognize that their own big emotions are not always going to be met by someone who is calm and regulated.

Teenager listening to her Mom speak to her.

I can’t say this technique always works. There are certainly days when it feels like they interpret my fair warnings as a challenge to push every button possible. I still lose my cool with my kids more than I would like, but when those moments happen, my apologies also come with a discussion about everyone’s choices and behaviors, not just mine. We don’t just talk about how I shouldn’t have yelled; we also talk about how I gave them a fair warning and they chose to argue or ignore rather than cooperate. Sometimes, especially with my oldest, these talks turn into discussions about how she was also dealing with big emotions or fatigue and chose to take that out on me rather than giving me a fair warning. And my kids are allowed to give us fair warnings too.

When I explode on my kids, it’s rarely just about what they are or are not doing in the moment. Instead, their behavior is usually just the last straw that has pushed me past the point of being able to regulate my own emotions, but I try to communicate that with my kids ahead of time so that they understand it’s not really about them. I think that is a reality for a lot of people, and something we should all recognize when we are teaching kids about emotions and behavior.

Beyond learning how to regulate their own emotions, beyond learning appropriate and inappropriate responses to things, I want my kids to learn that sometimes big emotions are hard to control but those struggles can be clearly communicated. I want them to understand that when they are struggling to regulate their emotions, they can state that outright instead of letting situations escalate – that being direct and transparent can go a long way. And I also want them to understand that, while they are not necessarily responsible for another person’s emotions or behaviors, when someone clearly communicates a boundary or a need, there can be consequences for disregarding those boundaries.

I wish I could do a better job at consistently modeling the calm in my children’s storm, but at the very least I know that I am trying hard to model effective communication and reflection.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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