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Coping with strong emotions as a new parent

Feelings come and go – learning how to cope with unwanted or distressing emotions is a big part of the journey to parenthood.

Parenthood is a time of transformation and change. Sometimes the intensity of mixed emotions can leave you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Unexpected and unwanted emotions can be deeply upsetting and confusing as a new parent.

Having a baby can be a time of confronting and uncomfortable emotional extremes. Often there’s a disconnect between our expectations of parenthood and reality.

You might feel moments of joy and grief. Flashes of resentment and rage may feel just as strong as moments of love and gratitude for your new baby, and your new life together.

Parenthood teaches us how to feel, contain and move through conflicting emotions in unfamiliar yet creative ways.

We often hear from new parents who say they feel guilty and ashamed for feeling sad or angry. Parents tell us they feel unable to tell anyone how they’re feeling.

“I’m supposed to feel happy and be enjoying this time of my life! If my partner or family knew how I really felt they’d be horrified.”

It may feel tempting to push strong unwanted feelings aside or deny them altogether. Yet these emotions don’t disappear - often they simmer under the surface and grow stronger.

As a new parent, it’s also common to feel like you don’t have time to sit with an emotion and reflect on why you’re feeling that way, because your baby needs your frequent attention and care.

When it comes to the new parent priority list, taking care of our own emotional wellbeing is often near the bottom of the list – when it should be near the top.

“How can I feel a sense of loss when I wanted my baby so much? Is it okay to say I feel bored and lonely some days? What kind of parent feels irritated and angry with a baby?”

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Don't push feelings away

When we sit with strong and uncomfortable emotions, they gradually begin to feel less intense and scary. Learning to sit with strong emotions instead of pushing them away or numbing them can be hard work, and it takes practice.

Sitting with our feelings can also help us to process and resolve intense emotions that might impact negatively on our sense of self and relationships to others.


Learning to sit with feelings

Using mindfulness techniques can help us cope with upsetting or strong emotions. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment and sitting with feelings without judging them – or judging yourself for having those feelings.

It’s important to remember that you can adapt any element of this mindfulness exercise so that it feels right for you.

Take it gently, and slowly – you’re in control of this process.

Sometimes it can help to start this exercise with both hands placed over your heart, as an anchor point for self-soothing.

Tip: If you read the exercise below and it feels too confronting or uncomfortable to practice it with a strong feeling, try the exercise first using a less intense emotion (eg when feeling tired, relaxed, wistful, bored, amused).

Wellbeing exercise: Sitting with strong feelings

1

Wellbeing exercise 1

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Wellbeing exercise 2

3

Wellbeing exercise 3

Now it’s time to give yourself some self-compassion for doing the exercise. Thank yourself for taking the time to look after you. Have a cup of tea or a snack (an activated digestive tract can help ‘ground’ us in our bodies after dealing with strong emotions).

Many Helpline callers tell us “I felt a bit silly” or “I didn’t do it right, I felt bored/annoyed”. Noticing any feelings - no matter what came up - means you’ve successfully completed the exercise.

The aim of this is to be real with ourselves about how we’re feeling. Gentle and kind, no judgement, and no matter what those feelings are. Just paying attention to whatever comes up for you.

Accepting and regulating your own feelings is an excellent emotional wellbeing plan – and it’s also a wonderful parenting tool.

Be kind to yourself as you practice sitting with your emotions. Learning to cope with strong feeling links to the value of being a ‘good enough’ parent. Being self-compassionate as you explore your emotions also sets you up well to deal with the range of emotions that come up at all stages of parenthood.

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Everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and parenting is unique and brings different rewards and challenges. Our mental health checklist can help you to see if what you’re experiencing or observing in a loved one could be a reason to seek help.