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When Your Child's Meltdowns Are Too Much To Handle

Sometimes we are running on empty ourselves, and we don’t have the emotional capacity to be with our child’s big emotions. Here are some preventative measures and timely rescues.

I’ve read all the things …  heard all the parenting tools, and I am on board.

I am the parent who wants to connect with my child before I redirect him. 

want to avoid yelling, lecturing, and punishment tactics. 

want to empower. Stay curious. Teach and guide. 

It totally makes sense to me. 

But here’s the thing. Knowing what to do and actually having the capacity to do it are two separate things. Despite my best intentions, I can’t ignore the loudness of my own life. 

I feel stressed.

Over my head. 

Out of my league. 

My own emotional capacity is on E, and it makes it super hard to be emotionally available for my child during his big emotions. 

When my three and five-year-olds have age-appropriate meltdowns, I feel the weight of all the shoulds in those moments. I should be able to be calm. I shouldn’t be so triggered. I should be able to help my child when they are struggling. I should be better at this.

Enter parent guilt, stage left. 

If you have made it this far, chances are, you have been here too. Turns out parenting stress is a real thing … like really. Psychologists refer to “parenting stress” as the distress we experience when we feel we can’t cope as a parent. The demands are too high and we don’t have the physical and/or emotional resources to meet them.  

Preventative Rescues

There are about a zillion things that can contribute to parenting stress, unique to each family system and individual. But the million-dollar question is: What do you do when your emotional capacity to cope with your child’s big emotions is MIA?

1. Celebrate

Sounds a little weird, right? But really, celebrate. Give yourself a pat on the back, a big ol’ hug, or at least a break (aka some self-compassion). Your awareness is powerful and is the first step to being available to both you and your children.  

2. Do A Brain Dump

On a piece of paper, write down everything that stresses you out. This can be done in one sitting or over the course of days. The act of creating the list itself isn’t supposed to be stressful. 

Once your list is complete, go through the list and circle anything you can control, and cross out anything that you can’t. This exercise helps us recognize where we may be giving our energy away and helps us focus on what we can control, which is empowering. 

Lastly, pick one thing from your list, the low-hanging fruit, and start there. How can you ease the stress of this particular thing? Can you delegate or ask for help? Does it require you to say no to something to prevent overscheduling your time and emotions? Can you break it down into smaller, more digestible parts? 

3. Shift Your Self-Talk

When you feel comfortable with the previous step, begin with small, sustainable mindset changes. This may include:

  • Create a “to feel” list instead of a “to do” list, which focuses on how you want to feel in a particular day as opposed to all of the things you have to do in a day. When we decide how we want to feel, we can strive to do (and think) things that help us live into the desired emotional state.
  • Create a mantra and/or post affirmations on sticky notes, your mirror, or wherever you can see them often. In setting these intentions, it shifts the circuits of your brain and, after time, new pathways of destressing are made. You may choose to say things like:
    • “I am worthy and enough.”
    • “I choose calm.”
    • “This is temporary and I can get through it.”
    • “I will listen to what my body needs today.”

4. Develop Rituals

Rituals are predictable and predictability communicates safety to our body, which helps us move from our stressed-out reactive brain to our higher brain regions wired for regulation. Some ideas include: 

  • Practice breathing slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth, watching your belly move up and down like waves of the ocean
  • Move your body via walking, stretching, or exercising
  • Sip hot tea or a cup of joe before the kids wake up 
  • Take a hot bath after they go to bed

Whatever ritual you decide, choose something small - just for you - that you can add to your day (not on to it). So maybe when you wake, you plant your feet on the ground, stretch your arms up, and set an intention for the day. Or maybe you take a few seconds for your ritual every time you go pee. Or maybe you set a timer to remind yourself throughout the day to pause and notice: “What do I need right now?” This is a great way to start small self-care practices

Another great ritual is one to do with your child. Take five minutes in the morning or before bed for a feelings check-in. How do I feel right now? When did I feel happy, sad, calm, and mad today? This ritual helps you connect with your child, be emotionally available for them, and can be a release for you too. 

I know this all sounds like a lot of preventative work, and it is. In doing these things, we can build our emotional capacity for when our kiddos are escalating. 

Timely Rescues 

Now, let’s say you have been incorporating some of the preventative tools yet you’re also fuzzy on what to do in the moment of your child’s escalation. 

The first thing is to start right where you are. Ask yourself, “How much can I give of myself right now? How am I feeling?” Sometimes just the pause and art of noticing helps us regulate, and sometimes it helps even our children. 

When it feels too much to validate your child, set a boundary, and use some of the other parenting tools for de-escalation, start with just one tool - the tool and power of your actions. What can you do in this moment to de-escalate yourself? 

  • Deep breathing or bumblebee breathing (which is good for blocking out stimuli and connecting with your body)
  • Tapping under your collar bones (which balances your own nervous system)
  • Touching your thumb to each finger and saying, “Peace lives in me” 
  • Getting outside with your child

Just modeling self-regulation is super powerful even if the other stuff feels too much. And then, maybe later, sometime when you do feel like it’s available for you emotionally and physically, have a conversation with your child. It may sound something like this: “Do you know how you sometimes have big emotions? Well, guess what, adults do too. And sometimes I am really working hard on mine. It’s kind of cool that we’re both going through this together. We are a team. I’m always here for you. I love you. And whatever comes, we will get through it together.” 

Who knows, maybe you and your child can come up with emotional calming strategies and solutions to high-stress moments together. Because we aren’t alone in this. Neither are our children. It is a relationship. I see my child, and they see me. I do for them, and guess, what, they mirror it right back. 

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