It’s 6pm, and you’re trying to pull dinner together & counting down the minutes until bedtime.
As you stare into the fridge, hoping to be hit by meal inspiration, your child asks for a cookie. You say no; it’s almost dinnertime.
And your child loses it – kicking, hitting, yelling: “You’re the WORST mommy EVER!”
You feel like screaming. You question your decision: Should I have given her the cookie? And you’re not sure what to do next because nothing – from punishments to deep breaths – ever seems to work in these moments.
Have you been there? I know I have.
(Oh wait! Have we met? I’m Dr. Hilary Mandzik, a licensed psychologist, parenting specialist, host of the parenting podcast Raised Resilient with Dr. Hilary, and – perhaps most importantly! – a mama of 3. I’m in the parenting trenches alongside you; I know exactly how hard parenting is. I also know from experience that parenting can feel lighter – and towards that end, I offer coaching, courses & group programs to empower you to parent with confidence, even when things get chaotic. I’m so glad you landed on this article, friend!)
Managing meltdowns is one of the hardest parts of parenting. It can feel really uncomfortable to sit with a child experiencing intense feelings. We often try in vain to get our child to calm down … and then feel like we’re failing when that doesn’t work.
If you can relate, you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.
Chances are good that when you had meltdowns as a child, you were told: brush it off; you’re fine; don’t worry about it; toughen up; and calm down. And if you couldn’t “calm down,” you were probably punished. This was considered good parenting when we were growing up; our parents did the best they knew how to do.
But despite their positive intentions, if your parents responded to you in these ways when you were melting down as a child, you probably learned that intense feelings aren’t safe – and that your feelings make other people (including your parents!) uncomfortable. So you might have learned to hide, avoid, or suppress your feelings.
For many of us, this strategy got us through childhood – we learned how to stay in our parents’ good graces. We learned to “power through” or “white knuckle” the hard moments. Over time, these feelings may have manifested in other ways – through mental or physical health issues or relationship challenges – but we often don’t connect those difficulties to not fully feeling our feelings. So we feel like we’re “doing just fine.”
That is – until we become parents … because when you enter parenthood with a tendency to avoid your feelings, it can feel super uncomfortable to witness your child expressing their feelings. (Especially when those feelings are intense or directed at you.)
But even though it can be hard, learning to tolerate and support your child’s big emotions is super important. And it’s totally possible!
This brings me back to meltdowns:
The first step to feeling more comfortable during your child’s meltdowns is to shift your mindset about what meltdowns mean, why they happen, and what you’re supposed to do about them.
With that idea in mind, here are four common myths about meltdowns:
Myth #1: Meltdowns are bad behavior.
We’ve been conditioned to see expressions of big feelings as bad behavior – but actually, meltdowns are normal and healthy. Meltdowns happen when your child’s ability to tolerate stress reaches capacity and they can’t handle one more thing without an emotional release.
To better illustrate this idea, imagine your child has an invisible water pitcher. Throughout the day, that pitcher fills up a little every time your child deals with something stressful (e.g., someone saying something unkind, feeling rushed, dealing with conflict) or does something that requires emotional energy (e.g., managing an impulse or learning something new).
Eventually, something tops off the pitcher – like you saying no to a cookie – and water has to come out (cue the meltdown). You saying no to the cookie doesn’t cause the meltdown; it’s simply the emotional “last straw.”
Myth #2: Meltdowns are ideally avoided.
Most of us enter parenting with the idea that our kids won’t melt down if we’re doing our jobs. But the goal isn’t to avoid meltdowns; it’s to welcome them. (I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out!)
We want our kids to learn that feelings are safe – that all feelings come and go, and no feeling lasts forever. We want them to share their feelings with us – not to bottle them up or hide them. It might be inconvenient & uncomfortable now – but if we want our teens to come to us if they’re feeling depressed or having a social challenge, that openness with sharing feelings has to start now.
So allow your child to feel their feelings & empathize with their struggle: “Nothing feels right today. I get that!” This doesn’t mean we allow all behaviors; we gently help our kids stop unsafe behaviors like hitting while also allowing them to feel their feelings: “It’s okay to be mad, but I can’t let you hit me,” as you gently stop their hand from hitting.
Myth #3: Your job during a meltdown is to get your child to calm down.
I know it feels like it’s on you to get your child back to calm when they’re losing it, but fixing feelings isn’t your job as a parent.
Your job is to be with your child in these tough moments, providing something the attachment research calls “co-regulation.”
Co-regulation essentially means allowing your child to feel their feelings – for as long as they need to feel them – with you by their side to keep them safe & help them make sense of the overwhelming feelings they’re experiencing.
So you can let go of the pressure to get your child back to calm – it’s not your job! And while social pressures might suggest otherwise, your worth as a parent has nothing to do with how intense your child’s feelings are or how long they last. Full stop.
Myth #4: Good parents stay calm during their children’s meltdowns.
Staying calm during meltdowns is important and helpful … but we all lose our cool sometimes.
It’s normal for your child’s meltdowns to trigger your own intense feelings. Your reactions to your child’s meltdowns are not your fault; like we discussed above, they result from your childhood experiences.
The goal isn’t to parent perfectly (there’s no such thing as perfect parenting!); it’s to become aware of what’s happening for you in these moments so you can choose to meet your child’s needs despite your feelings.
And when, despite your best efforts, you still lose your cool, you can repair with your child. Once you’re calm, let your child know: “I’m sorry I yelled. It’s never your fault when I yell. I’m working on doing the right things with my big feelings, just like you are.”
You’ve got this.
If you found this article helpful, check out my podcast, follow me on Instagram, and grab my FREE guide, 6 Mindset Shifts to Ditch the Overwhelm & Parent in a Way That Feels Good!
Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a licensed psychologist and mom of three who’s passionate about supporting parents. She’s actively working to change the narrative around parenting and to help parents break unhelpful generational cycles so they can parent in a way that TRULY feels good – for them and for their kids.
She has a private therapy practice where she specializes in perinatal mental health as well as an online parenting support business, where she creates content and offers online programs to support parents in raising resilient, confident kids with less stress (and more joy!). She’s also the host of the parent-loved podcast Raised Resilient with Dr. Hilary.
www.raisedresilient.com — Raised Resilient homepage
www.raisedresilient.com/podcast — Raised Resilient with Dr. Hilary podcast homepage
www.hilarymandzik.com — therapy practice (Hilary Mandzik, PsyD) homepage
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