The Epic Meltdown When We Learned: "Our Love is Bigger"Sep 29, 2022
So, this whole idea of “losing it”, as a parent, “flipping my lid”, “going red brain” and then needing to repair the ruptured relationship? Unfortunately, I’ve had some practice.
It was the end of summer and just two days before Max was going to start first grade. I made my first mistake: underestimating the stress Max was experiencing which led me to my second mistake: sharing the idea that we would “do something fun to celebrate”.
This, in theory, might sound like a good idea. However, it was not, because Max was experiencing a lot of stress about the upcoming change that he couldn’t name or express. Enter mistake #3: I offered Max two fun choices. I have been taught that offering choices to kids is a good way for them to feel empowered. However, I have since learned that choices can just as easily be stressors! So use this strategy with care and discernment.
Stress, negotiations and chaos followed and before we knew it, Max was in full-on meltdown mode, hysterical, crying, screaming. And I did my thing where I handled it so well for so long, feeling a bit amazed at myself, until suddenly, I didn’t – a surprise to us both. I yelled. Max and I were both sitting on the stairs by now where he couldn’t stop yelling, at one point, a blood-curdling scream and I couldn’t stop crying.
Then a calm came over me (a mystery) and suddenly I spoke in a calm, firm, loving voice. I put my hand on my heart and I said, “Max, this is really hard; we are both having really big feelings, (I took a deep breath, loudly) but no matter how big our hard feelings are, our love is bigger (deep breath). We will get through this; we will weather this storm, (deep breath). I am here for you no matter what. We are really upset and really mad, maybe even scared about the start of first grade... No matter what you are feeling, just know it is OK, and I believe you and I see you (deep breath).”
We were quiet together for a moment, just hugging each other. Then I said, “you know, big feelings are like stormy weather, and they show up like a hurricane but we hang in there, and then it passes on…. And my love for you is like the big blue sky, always there, even when we can’t see it and SO much bigger than any storm.”
We sat in silence on the landing, my back pressed against the wall, his head in my lap. I stroked his hair and his back. After a long while, I said, “you know what I think we both need? Something really soft around us, like the Cloud (the world’s softest blanket that he named the Cloud), and something soft to sit on, like the couch, and something crunchy to crunch on, like popcorn and something fun to watch, like the Wild Kratts movie.”
These are all specific ways to support self-regulation in a child who is dysregulated (and a mama!!): something crunchy to eat can be very helpful, touch, contact and connection, something soft and comforting…
And that’s what we did, wrapped up in the Cloud, snuggling, crunching, watching and being together. The storm had passed.
Before I learned anything about emotional and self-regulation, I would not have had any way to conceptually make sense of what happened – the how and why of it. I would have chalked it up to my own personal failure, my inability to control my emotions and Max’s diagnoses as “sensory processing disorder” and “social/emotional developmental delay”, and then suffered on.
When we start to befriend the body, and develop an awareness of what self-regulation is, we learn to first reframe, and see our child’s misbehavior as stress behavior. We discover that when our child experiences VERY BIG FEELINGS and they come out sideways and throw us completely for a loop… that they are then having a really hard time, and they need our help navigating those big feelings.
This is a key, central role that we have as parents: to help our children hold, make sense of and navigate these huge feelings for which they don’t even have words, concepts, or any context through which to understand them. We help them learn that ALL of their feelings are valid and welcomed, even when not ALL of their behaviors are.
With this new perspective of body-informed parenting, I could see it more like this:
I could understand that Max’s behavior was due to overwhelming stress of the upcoming significant transition, not misbehavior, or his diagnosis. A fun summer was over, and he was starting first grade the next day. This meant a new class, a new classroom, a new schedule, a new teacher; and he would be going the full day, and that was the first time, since his kindergarten was only half day.
I could see that my losing it spectacularly, crying and yelling, was not reducing his stress (yes, sarcasm). But hey, I was really stressed too. And that is also reasonable and valid. I realized, much later, after writing this blog post, that I also was very stressed and this was a really big transition for me too. I had loved (most times) having afternoons with him and was both excited and very sad as he marched on to first grade, without me.
And when I was able to start to reduce my own stress first (after my own initial stress response!) then I could genuinely soothe Max and meet his stress with compassion. I could comfort him with a soft blanket, snuggles and something crunchy to chew on, and reduce any expectation or activity. The next day was his last day of summer before first grade, and we had the most relaxed day with zero plan: we wandered through the neighborhood, stopped at a lemonade stand, sat on a bench with our over-sugared, warm lemonades and just chatted.
It’s one of my best memories from that summer.
Enjoy this free Masterclass in the most important paradigm shift in parenting today: away from the outdated and ineffective "behavior management" approach, to the body-informed parenting approach to self-regulation.
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