We see our children having their own meltdowns. Rationality goes out of the window and other feelings take centre stage, whether that be bone-tired exhaustion, the rage of injustice, or sadness washing over them like a wave they fear will never subside. Not long ago, I sat on the dusty high-street pavement as my toddler screamed face down, my five-year-old wailed, and my seven-year-old leant against the newsagents with bemusement at the scene. It bought a whole new meaning to ‘waiting for the storm to pass’, but there was little else I could do.
I am not alone, though, in sometimes joining my children in their meltdowns. If I’m honest, without the gaze of passers-by, I may have cried and beat my fists into the ground too. We aim to stay calm; we breathe behind cupboard doors and on loo seats. We try to respond in a way we’re proud of, a way that reflects all the stuff we’ve read. A way that won’t have us gazing at their sleeping forms promising to ‘do better tomorrow’.
But sometimes we snap. We reach the end of our resources, our tethers. We join them in their meltdowns. We conduct our own adult version of joining them face-down on the floor. We snap, or shout, or beg, or cry, or all of the above.
More mothers have reported feeling irritable and rageful than ever before, welcoming fresh torrents of familiar guilt and shame. In an ideal world, we are the calm within our children’s storms, but sometimes we find ourselves just joining them in their meltdowns. We pick ourselves up, work to clear the collateral damage brought by the storm and promise ourselves we will do better next time.
As a mum of three and psychotherapist to mothers, I have five tried and tested tips to help you lessen the likelihood of the parenting meltdown.
Prioritise the things that fill you up
We need energy in order to have that buffer between something happening, and how we react. The less we have in the tank, the less able we are to take a breath when things are challenging, to engage our rational brain that calms and grounds us, when all around us is pushing our buttons. Prioritise any form of rest as recovery from the challenging moments, and a re-fuelling for the ones to come. Whether it be choosing a slow morning, asking others to facilitate you having some time to laugh with a friend, or opting for a sit down over ticking a job off a list.
Swap ‘perfection’ for ‘good enough’
Often the extra pressure we heap upon ourselves contributes to feelings of overwhelm. If we find ourselves living upon the tightrope of so-called perfect parenting, where one wrong move and we’ve ‘failed’, then just as a tightly wound spring will ping further, so do we. Where is the bar for your parenting compared to the bar for your own mental and emotional wellbeing? Do you ask a lot of yourself in the way you parent, but overlook your own feelings and needs? If so, know that ‘good enough’ is good enough. How can you take your humanness and limited resources more into account in how you parent? Perfectionism is unattainable and exhausting to pursue, plus a perfect parent cannot prepare a child to navigate our imperfect world.
Find your parenting base level
When you’re feeling depleted and at risk of a meltdown, revert to your base level of parenting. Ironically, amidst my first baby group back in 2014, we used to call these ‘lockdown days’, where the focus was on getting through them unscathed, and less about ticking all of the boxes. We would cut corners and lower standards for a few hours or days to get through an illness or a time of challenge or stress. Ensure that all basic needs are being met and then focus on refuelling and resourcing. Delay, deny or delegate anything that is weighing heavily on your shoulders and further depleting you.
Determine your feeling and need
When we feel our own meltdown bubbling up, what contributes to whether we boil up and over, or manage to contain those simmering emotions, is whether you’ve acknowledged and met your needs and validated your feelings. Consider what needs you have overlooked recently. Do you need space, rest, physical nourishment, or emotional support? Even more so, if prevention is better than a cure, then how can you keep asking yourself this question along the way to help release the pressure cooker valve a little?
Resolve and repair
What about when you do find yourself falling into meltdown mode? Firstly, respond to yourself with compassion and gentleness. You are human, you have limits and limited resources. The way we resolve and repair a feeling of emotional calm and safety following these moments of messy chaos, can be a valuable learning experience for our children. Take a moment to explain how you grown-ups have big feelings too sometimes. And whilst you don’t feel it’s ideal that you lost your cool, you were feeling tired/grumpy/sad, and you are sorry that you did.
I hope these things will support you in those challenging moments of parenting. Let me say with certainty that you are not alone in them. The guilt that follows a parenting meltdown can feel heavy and accusing, but when we allow the guilt to prompt us to action, be it cutting corners to refuel our resources, explaining to a child what happened to restore calm, or reaching out for reinforcements, guilt has served its purpose. And once guilt has served its purpose, we can let it go.
Find more tips in my new book The Little Book of Calm for New Mums: Grounding words for the highs, the lows and the moments in between****, publishing 26th May 2022