You’ve heard this story before, in fact, you’ve probably lived this story.
Mother takes child to fun event, child has a major meltdown that mother describes as “coming out of nowhere” or “going from zero-to-sixty in a split second.” Mother is bewildered, embarrassed, frustrated, and completely overwhelmed, predicts her child will end up in juvenile hall, addicted to drugs, or is suffering from a serious mental illness.
Mother reacts by taking away all the child’s privileges and grounding him for a week. Child reacts by lashing out with words of hatred and disconnection. Mother feels like a complete failure and blames herself for being a bad parent.
Do you feel shameful when you remember your own version of this story? First, remember you’re not alone.
And next, slow down for a moment and rewind. Let’s unpack this story. Let’s start before the beginning. Let’s explore all aspects of this scenario before we decide we are a horrible parent or that our child is the Devil’s spawn.
The Anatomy of a Meltdown
Mother left for work before the sun was up this morning. (She is tired and running on empty before the day has begun.)
Child did not see mother before she left and didn’t get his favorite breakfast. (He starts off his day with two disappointments.)
Mother had a stressful meeting at work and forgot to eat lunch, again. (Now, she is tired, stressed, and hungry.)
Child’s teacher reprimanded him in front of the entire class and he was left out of a game at recess. (He feels embarrassed and alone.)
Mother says “yes” to a last-minute request to volunteer at the school carnival tonight. (She takes on more stress that’s related to her chronic inability to say no.)
Child is picked up from school by a neighbor and, when dad gets home, he is too preoccupied to hear about his child’s day. (Child is upset because that wasn’t what he expected and he now feels unheard and unimportant.)
Mother rushes home to get child so they can attend the school carnival together because dad is unwilling to attend. (Mom is rushed and upset; child feels her tension which adds to his own.)
Mother is working at the carnival and unable to focus on child. (She feels guilty and trapped; he feels alone and unimportant.)
Mother gives child all the tickets he wants throughout the evening. (She feels guilty she can’t spend time with him and mistakenly believes she can pacify him with things.)
Child wants more (attention, not stuff), mother says “no” to a big ticket item. (She doesn’t realize it’s not about the item.)
Child has a meltdown, screaming that he wished he’d never been born, he says he hates her, he hates himself, and he just wants to die. (He feels unseen, unheard, alone, and unimportant.)
Mother is stunned.
Where did this come from? Wasn’t she doing this for him? Wasn’t he getting everything he wanted? Embarrassed, confused, and upset she picks up her child and carries him out of the school. Parents, teachers, and children are all staring at them.
It’s a complete disaster.
What really caused this meltdown?
When we unpack the day, we discover that both mother and child have had several challenges and disappointments to contend with before they even arrive at the carnival.
When we look more closely, we see that each member of the family played a part in the disconnections that lead to eventual disaster.
Mother is trying her best to meet everyone’s needs and then some. She has a hard time setting boundaries with others and says “yes” when she really wants to say “no.”
Dad has a hard time with last-minute changes to his schedule which his wife describes as “rigid” – this causes disconnect and tension between them.
Their child is feeling alone and unheard. This is a child who desperately wants to be seen, to feel important and worthy of his parent’s attention.
To get the full picture of this family, we also need to take into consideration the child’s age: he is seven, developmentally unable to express his feelings and needs verbally. We have to take into account his temperament: he is highly sensitive, introverted, and has a hard time with transitions. He feels more deeply than most and internalizes a lot. His inner world is complicated and he feels alone and misunderstood. When his nervous system is calmer, he feels embarrassed and horrible about his meltdown, which adds to his own mounting pile of evidence that he is a bad kid and should never have been born.
The good news is that we can prevent this from happening again.
Parents can pay attention to their own stress levels, learn how to have better boundaries, and understand how their child’s temperament and personality impact their actions and reactions. Children can be taught how to express themselves so they can heard. The child in this story can learn how to regulate his nervous systems and self-soothe. These skills are not innate, they need to be learned.
What do you do if you see yourself and your family in this story?
This isn’t just some hypothetical family with textbook problems. This could be a portrait of your family and the struggles you push through each day.
You could use some support dealing with life that’s marked by an excess of obligations and a lack of communication and connection.
I invite you to join my online facebook community Lost in Motherhood where mothers come together to offer camaraderie and receive healing.