5 social-emotional skills for parents

An illustration of a woman looking at her young daughter.

There's no simple way to sum up a parent's job, but one phrase comes to mind: Swiss Army knife.

Ready to problem-solve any situation, many parents can jury-rig a broken shoelace on the way to school, scramble to retrieve forgotten sports equipment before a big tournament, calm panic over a looming math quiz, and console a heartbroken teenager.

Every time, parents hope they'll rise to the challenge by offering their child an ideal combination of emotional and practical support along with firm guidance. But sometimes they're overwhelmed, get frustrated, and fall short of their own expectations. Whatever the case, the ability to handle the unpredictable trials of parenthood rests partly on an adult's social-emotional skills.

If this term sounds familiar, it's because social-emotional learning, or SEL, is now a common part of classroom curriculum in schools across the U.S. SEL is meant to support young students' well-being and academic performance by helping them cultivate self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Though SEL strategies are billed as beneficial for kids, parents need them, too. The highs and lows of parenting all but require the ability to deal with a wide range of emotions, sometimes all at once. Yet adults rarely learned how to do this during childhood, and parents don't receive much support for developing this skill once they've got kids of their own.

Dr. Jill Emanuele, Ph.D., a psychologist and vice president of clinical training at the Child Mind Institute, offers a relatable way of thinking about this dynamic by posing a question: "How do you manage your emotions so you act in a manner that's consistent with who you are and your values?"

Plenty of parents are desperate for answers to this question. They want to stop shouting at their mid-tantrum toddler or to enforce screen-time rules without resorting to threats. While there's plenty of valuable advice featured in podcasts, newsletters, private Facebook groups, and TikTok and Instagram parenting accounts, surprisingly straightforward SEL strategies can also make a big difference: pausing, tending to basic needs, self-soothing, practicing self-compassion, and seeking support when it's needed.

Emanuele says that in addition to adopting SEL skills, it's important for parents to reflect on what's making it harder to manage their emotions effectively. When parents understand what they feel, how that informs their thinking, and how those thoughts influence their behavior, they can better handle the emotional turmoil of parenting. That said, there are certain experiences and circumstances, like financial strain, racism, or a global pandemic, that make it harder to cope. Though SEL strategies can't fix those problems, they can help parents develop a more positive relationship with themselves, and as a result, more loving, supportive interactions with their kids.

Here are five parenting SEL skills to consider using:

1. Pause

Parenting isn't filled with that many moments of silence. Instead, it's more like a nonstop pinball game in which parents feel like they're careening from one moment (or meltdown) to the next. Emanuele says parents should focus on pausing when possible to reflect on what's happening in that moment, including what they're thinking or feeling. This is a particularly important skill to use when a parent acts in a way that doesn't feel good or right to them.

"What happens is we get so overwhelmed that we don't actually stop to think about what's happening here," she says. "We just kind of go down the rabbit hole of emotional hell or continue to do things that don't work."

"What happens is we get so overwhelmed that we don't actually stop to think about what's happening here."
- Dr. Jill Emanuele, psychologist and vice president of clinical training at the Child Mind Institute

Pausing, then staying in the moment, is about taking stock of feelings and behavior. Emanuele acknowledges how hard this can be. It might feel uncomfortable when a parent actually wants to avoid their emotions instead. The act of pausing can help stop runaway emotions and impulsivity, thereby helping a parent respond to the situation in a way that reflects their values and intentions.

Practicing this throughout the day when the stakes are low helps strengthen pausing as a skill, too. Emanuele recommends, for example, that parents put a smartphone aside instead of picking it up 10 times in 15 minutes, and briefly contemplate how they feel.

She also points out that parents who grew up without high-speed internet or smart devices know from their own childhood that there used to be moments when nothing was happening, which made it easier to be aware of emotions or thoughts. In other words, pauses were easy to come by.

"We don't have that anymore, so we have to make them," she says.

2. Sleep and eat well

Developmental psychologist Dr. Tia Kim, Ph.D., says that one of her go-to SEL strategies is self-care. Specifically, Kim focuses on the importance of sleeping and eating well because it helps people develop a "positive emotional baseline."

"It seems very basic, but just regulating those things so you're in a fresh place to be able to make good decisions and manage your emotions when there are stressful situations," is important, says Kim, vice president of education, research, and impact at Committee for Children, a global nonprofit organization that develops SEL curricula.

High-quality sleep and nutritious food may not be consistently available to parents for a variety of reasons, but adults who simply have an awareness that they're hangry or exhausted are in a better position to handle stress. Instead of becoming frustrated with a cranky kid who hasn't eaten enough, a parent might say, "Hey, I'm also hungry, and when I'm hungry it's hard for me to stay calm. Can we stop and have a snack together?"

Sleeping and eating well are surprisingly overlooked self-care techniques. Other strategies needn't be elaborate: Five minutes of meditation, drinking water throughout the day, taking a regular 15-minute walk, or journaling all count as acts of self-care that can help parents manage stress. In general, Kim recommends designing a self-care routine, sticking with the plan as much as possible, and tracking progress, which helps people form new habits.

3. Practice self-soothing

Parents who hear the phrase "self-soothing" might flash back to their child's infancy. The hope — and dream — at that stage is that a baby will learn to soothe themselves after waking from sleep, maybe with a pacifier, stuffed animal, or favorite blanket. But self-soothing isn't just for babies.

Emanuele says parents should develop simple strategies to help counter stress. In therapy, Emanuele teaches children these skills using the five senses, and adds movement as a sixth sense. Self-soothing based on touch could mean hugging a loved one or petting an animal. Listening to a favorite musician taps into the hearing sense. Noticing a beautiful sunset while driving draws on sight. These activities can help change mood and redirect a parent who feels stressed out.

While parents might turn to alcohol, drugs, or food to relieve tension, Emanuele says it's important to choose carefully. A glass of wine or slice of cake might feel like a well-deserved treat, but it could be an ineffective coping skill when it makes an adult's emotions "wonky" by amplifying anxiety or affecting blood sugar. The point isn't to necessarily abstain from so-called vices, but rather to understand that they might work against a parent's self-soothing efforts. Alternatively, parents might enjoy a drink when they're not feeling overwhelmed. And when emotions have become too much, they can try self-soothing methods like putting on an impromptu dance party or reading a good book.

"It's really important to always be thinking, 'Is this actually going to help me stay regulated or stay even?'" she says. If the answer is no, try something else.

4. Be compassionate with yourself

So much parenting advice can make caregivers feel like they have to be perfectly calibrated at all times. They must be warm enough that their child feels emotionally connected to them, but also be an authoritative adult who sets reasonable boundaries without becoming a harsh authoritarian. This can leave parents wondering if they're allowed to make mistakes or have intense emotions.

Kim says that this kind of pressure isn't manageable or realistic. Parents will screw up, melt down, and lose their temper.

"It's fine to have really strong emotions, but how you manifest them in a particular setting, you might have to regulate that," she says.

When parents realize they haven't handled their feelings well, they can practice self-compassion instead of berating or shaming themselves. Kim says that social-emotional development, including positively managing emotions, is a lifelong process. When parents offer themselves kindness in the wake of disappointing behavior, it can help them learn and grow from what happened. It also models for children that their parent can cope with making a mistake and talk through it, rather than dwell on the misstep and insist on perfection.

A common misperception of self-compassion is that it's a permission slip that excuses certain actions. Instead, think of it like an acknowledgement of vulnerability and a commitment to do better next time.

5. Seek help and support when you need it

It's hard to imagine a parent on the planet who doesn't want or need more support, especially in the midst of a pandemic. A recent survey of parents by the Child Mind Institute found that more than half of respondents said they, or they and their children, experienced a traumatic event during the pandemic, including the death of a family member, loss of a parent's job, and food insecurity. Enduring trauma can certainly make coping with everyday stress that much harder.

"When adults have strong emotional skills, it helps them be role models."
- Dr. Tia Kim, developmental psychologist at the Committee for Children

Emanuele says it's critical that caregivers assess how they're functioning and consider seeking help for their emotional and psychological well-being. Parents experiencing trauma, anxiety, and depression might reflect on whether they're behaving in typical ways or struggling more often than not. If they've been having trouble for awhile, or are unable to perform daily activities and tasks, they should consider receiving care to treat any mental health issues. (It's worth noting that economic and workplace policies, including pandemic stimulus payments and predictable scheduling, have been shown to boost well-being, indicating that systems can play a powerful role in improving people's mental health.)

While asking for support can be hard, SEL strategies alone likely won't be enough to help someone recover from a mental health crisis or condition, says Emanuele. Receiving high-quality care can make a profound difference for parents and their children. This includes improving a parent's capacity for handling tough emotions.

In general, practicing SEL strategies is not only good for parents, it also has benefits for their kids, says Kim: "When adults have strong emotional skills, it helps them be role models."