Racing around the house, tensions are mounting, and the clock in my head is ticking louder and louder.
Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock! We’re late! We’re late!
My underlings continue to amaze me with their expert aptitude for crafting new versions of dawdling. Like a leaky bucket, minutes dribble on the floor behind us.
Sibling conflict is a major culprit today. “Bwuthew isn’t talking to me. He fawted and I towd him to say, ‘excuse me’ and he didn’t ansew.” Two minutes down the drain as his story painstakingly makes its way into words.
Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!
Another two minutes pass as I stand there scratching my head. I don’t even know how to answer him, except to say, “Just put your shoes on.”
The later it gets, the less I am able to cope with the fact that I am still wearing pajamas. Every effort to dress is circumvented. “I don’t like that kind of bread!” “Where is my other shoe?” “Can you get down my lunchbox?” “Can you pay me $2 since I took the dog potty and cleaned my room?” “Mom, this ponytail is fuzzy in the back. Can you redo it?”
Tick! Tock! Tick! Tock!
Frustration builds alongside foiled efforts. Tension in my body mounts. Their silky faces, clumsily-formed words, squeaky voices, and large, innocent eyes are shamefully inadequate to ward off the volcano preparing to blow.
What happens next is nothing short of a miraculous moment.
I pause and ask myself, “What would happen if we were late?”
Furthermore, is whatever that outcome might be any worse than the angst I am accepting into my heart in these difficult moments?
Clarity gifts me with her presence as I recognize… We aren’t running from a tsunami, we’re preparing for day #84 of transitional kindergarten, 3rd, and 7th grade.
As I ask myself, “What is the worst-case scenario?” I sheepishly answer, “We’re ten minutes late.” Then what? “The kids go into the office, get a tardy slip, and head to class.” Then what? “An extra tardy on their report card.” Then what? I can’t think of anything else.
And so I admit: Maybe I don’t want to exchange this opportunity for a peaceful heart and a harmonious family for one less tardy. I dial it down a notch and gratefully accept the gift of a little perspective.
The racing around, irritability, and the remorse that follows are all too familiar to parents as we attempt to navigate busy lives with children.
Just because I am a clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting, does not mean that I am immune to these kinds of challenges. With a busy practice and an even busier household, there are countless fires to put out each and every day. With four kids and extracurriculars that keep us running in every direction, there is invariably that moment when the energies collide.
Because I work with parents, I know that I am not alone. This is the same situation that multitudes of moms and dads find themselves in each day: Mommy Meltdown or Daddy Detonation. Despite a ferocious love for our children and the most benevolent of intentions, we lose it.
A valuable question that many of us have asked: How can we protect ourselves, our children, and our lives from being robbed of the opportunity to joyfully, playfully, and “connectedly” do life? How can we have more success as we seek to keep our cool, particularly when we feel ourselves heading into a meltdown?
Here are five steps that I have found particularly helpful in capturing a more calm and collected way of parenting.
1. Set up a trip wire
We often trip over the same rock or bump our heads on the same overhang. The first step to keeping your cool is noticing where and when the common pitfalls lie.
Jot down the last few memories of rushing, irritability and the feeling of losing control. Where were you going? What happened? How did you lose your cool?
Enlist the help of a friend, coparent, a parent coach or even your own kids to help you problem solve.
How can you identify and avoid those frustration pitfalls in the future?
You are your best self when you are not in the heat of the moment. Make space now for creativity to solve the problems that are sure to come up.
2. Take a personal time out
(Parents need timeouts, too!)
If you notice you are starting to over-heat, give yourself a personal time-out.
One way to protect you and your family is to track your own intensity and learn to more consistently self-regulate your mood. Even a mere two minutes of deep breathing can do wonders in redirecting your physiology and affect to a more calm and constructive state.
Find a quiet place. Take a deep breath and allow the air to slowly fill your lungs. Hold your breath for a second and then slowly release. Let go of the tension in your neck, shoulders, arms, and back as you exhale.
Ask yourself these questions to regain some perspective:
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- Will this matter 6 months down the line? 5 years down the line?
- Engage your imagination. What is the kind of parent that you want to be? Grab a hold of that image and allow it to inspire you afresh as you reengage your children.
A powerful way to teach your children the essential skill of self-regulation is to learn how to do it well yourself.
3. Be realistic when it comes to your kids
It is quite critical that you make sure that your peace of mind is not contingent on your children performing at a pace or manner that is far too ambitious for their not yet fully developed minds and bodies. It is important that our expectations for our children are developmentally appropriate. Consider the following:
Am I expecting them to work too fast?
Loading up the car to leave, homework routines, bedtime, and household chores are just a few examples of common meltdown moments. It is important to remember, as we sit with our own idea of how things should play out, that children, especially young children, have an undeveloped notion of time. The beauty of a child is that they can be present in the moment. The challenge can be the dawdling and distraction. Even with teens, press pause on your expectations. The level of speed and efficiency that has become part of normal expectations for our teens may reflect more of our frenetic parenting culture than a good match for adolescent development.
Am I expecting them to work too independently?
Especially when it comes to younger ones, children need help in organizing their tasks. Being given instructions that involve multiple steps is often too much. In addition to keeping instructions simple, setting up systems and routines helps keep kids on track. I still remember the despair that I would feel as a young girl when my mother would ask me to clean up my toys. The recollection of a towering toy bin alongside dolls and blocks as far as the eye could see still evokes in me a visceral response of overwhelm. Did you know that even the teenage brain has a lot of growing to do in the planning department? The part of the human brain responsible for decision-making and judgment is not fully developed until age 25!
Am I expecting my children to behave the same every day?
It is important to recognize that our children’s abilities and capacities are variable. While your child may be perfectly capable of getting himself dressed on one day, he may need help on another. While she may blaze through homework on one day, she may meltdown over the smallest math problem on another. That is normal. Remember H.A.L.T. (a common acronym used in recovery): things are harder when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Our children (as do we) benefit from an added measure of understanding and patience on a difficult day.
4. Be realistic when it comes to YOU
It may be time to scale WAY back your expectations of YOU. There is a tidal wave of disappointment to be had as we come up short alongside the image of what the perfect parent looks like. Feeling like we aren’t able to achieve what we believe we should and others do achieve, can fuel a meltdown of the worst kind. Avoiding meltdown means that burnt cookies, grumpy kids, $5 pizzas, and teenage mishaps cannot be used to belittle who we are as parents.
While we may parent in the era of Pinterest, we are every bit as finite, tired, over-scheduled, and human as parents have ever been. We cannot continue to judge ourselves or our children against such saccharine and unfair standards without getting leveled by disappointment and frustration.
Consider handmade cards, elaborate parties, soft-glow family pictures by a personal photographer, and a whole host of new habits like gender reveals, monthly pregnancy photos, and kitschy first day of school photo ops. While they may be fun, they are not the essence of good parenting. Trust, warmth, connection, laughter, and a listening ear are. Maybe it’s time to take a social media break. Come up with your own ideas and standards about what makes for a “good” parent and hang onto it like it’s gold.
5. Get some good sleep
While this final comment may not help as much in the heat of the moment, I would be remiss to neglect commenting on sleep. There is a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a torture strategy. As a basic biological need, human functioning quickly declines in the absence of sufficient sleep.
As Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, states in his article on sleep deprivation, “One of the first symptoms of sleep deprivation in humans is a disordering of thought and bursts of irrationality.” And any parent who has cared for a newborn, says, “Duh!”
In addition to irritability, poorer judgement, reduced creativity, impaired problem solving, and even depression are all associated with insufficient sleep. Really, the list of impairments is quite lengthy. It’s no surprise then that research has documented a relationship between insufficient sleep and poorer parenting behaviors.
Additionally, research has also revealed that the effects of sleep deprivation are insidious. People are not often aware of their impairments. In tests of individuals who are well-slept alongside individuals who are sleep deprived, despite that both reported feeling fine, research documented significant differences in results on performance tasks. Those in the sleep-deprived category, much to their surprise, performed considerably worse.
An important strategy for circumventing a meltdown is to make better sleep a priority. Recommended nightly sleep for an adult is 7 to 9 hours. Of course, the irony for me lies in the fact that I wrote this section at 3 in the morning during a bout of insomnia after being awoken three separate times: First, by my husband snoring, second by a child who’d had a bad dream, and third by a child who was ill. The battle is real, people!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For our quick contemplation exercise today, let’s take quick stock –
- How often do you have a meltdown or detonation?
- What are some of the common triggers? How can you set yourself to recognize them before they trip you up?
- Imagine yourself responding to these triggers with a new more relaxed mindset. What are some thoughts and feelings that go along with this more peaceful and regulated approach?
- How do you think your child(ren) would feel if you were to respond in this improved way?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Our feelings start out as a whisper. It might show up as a little tension in our body, a pit in our stomach, or a slight feeling of sadness or longing. It’s after prolonged disregard of these clues of unrest that the feelings can grow to visible irritability and anger.
Consider how you can be a nurturing steward of your own feelings. Just as a loving mother cares for her child, practice self-compassion. When we listen to our feelings and learn from them, they don’t have to yell to get our attention.
Take care of yourself and keep yourself from going off the deep end by including one or more of the following to your regular routine:
- Write your daily thoughts and feelings in a journal
- Have a regular coffee date with a trusted friend where you can share meaningful conversation
- Practice yoga or other forms of mindfulness-based activity
- Make a concerted effort to get better sleep
- Enlist the support of a therapist for self-care and coping
The world of parenting is always moving and busy. But in the midst of diapers, homework, and the birds-and-bees conversations, remember that you are building memories one moment at a time. And there may be nothing more memorable than sharing a laugh over a burnt cookie!