Decades of research have shown us that unregulated emotions can derail our lives. Intense unpleasant emotions can lead to rash decisions and a whole slew of actions we’re bound to regret. Despite wanting to be the best parent we can be, despite wanting to be in control and be a great role model for our children, there are times when this awareness flies out of our head. Lack of emotional awareness and the inability to regulate our emotions conspire to sabotage most parents despite their best intentions.

What can you do to avoid a parental meltdown? The key is to learn a few strategies to regulate your emotions — skills your children will end up learning, too. Remember: your children learn how to handle intense emotions by watching how you act when you experience those same emotions.

The Meta-Moment is a tool that helps us press the pause button between a challenging feeling and our first impulse. “The Meta-Moment helps you prolong the space in time between when you are triggered and when you respond,” explains Robin Stern, psychologist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Studies have shown that people who use the Meta-Moment tool on a regular basis report using more effective emotion regulation strategies and experience less stress, anxiety, and frustration.

The idea is that instead of reacting impulsively — and potentially making the situation worse — you use your breath to calm down, which allows your brain to think clearly about your options. But it’s not just about calming down or taking a break from the conflict at hand. The Meta-Moment also asks you to think about the person you aspire to be: your “best self.”

For example, if you feel anger towards your child for being disrespectful, you can use a Meta-Moment: first, by taking deep breaths and then asking how your best self would react to set limits for your child without escalating the conflict. Finally, you decide what to do to achieve that goal. By thinking about who you want to be (your best self), rather than simply solving the problem (your child’s disrespect), you focus on developing more positive strategies.

There are two types of Meta-Moments: proactive and responsive. Proactive Meta-Moments allow us to anticipate a challenging situation and problem solve in advance. Responsive Meta-Moments help us to respond effectively to unexpected, challenging situations. The more we practice proactive Meta-Moments, the easier it becomes to use responsive Meta-Moments.

Learning how to use the Meta-Moment effectively takes time and practice. But when the tool becomes routine, it can help us shift from using old, automatic responses to employing healthy new responses in every challenging situation we encounter. When used by a whole family, the Meta-Moment can become a powerful tool to help avoid or minimize unproductive conflict and build an emotionally healthy family.

This is part of a series about tools used in the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program (@emotionallyintelligentschools). RULER is a research-based program used by schools to develop the skills of emotional intelligence in all educators, staff, students, and their families. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence uses the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society. Check out the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s other tools.

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Updated: August 5, 2019