I sometimes feel embarrassed about how I over-react to Nick’s behaviour. I know he can be naughty, and boy, he really knows how to press my buttons, but I should know better. I mean, I am the adult. I don’t know why, but I just lose it. I find myself in a complete rage. There are times when I think to myself that I am glad that no-one I know is there to witness how I behave.

Key points

  • Connect with your children on an emotional level.
  • Don’t “lost it”. Repeated meltdowns are damaging to your children.

Let’s consider what to do when things go wrong.  Say our child is confronted with ‘an emotionally challenging event’– BING! What can we do here? This is where attachment comes in. If our child is securely attached to us, we can help them cope with these events. They will look to us for guidance, not only in how to deal with the problem, but also how to emotionally react to it.

For example, if your child falls off their bike and is shaken but not hurt, this — at least to them — may be an emotionally challenging event. If you are nearby, their reaction may be determined by your reaction. If they turn to you and you shrug your shoulders and smile in an ‘oh well’ kind of manner, they’re likely to hop back on their bike with a minimum of fuss. If, on the other hand you rush to them with anxiety and concern written all over your face, they’re much more likely to also get anxious and concerned.

Establish an emotional connection

This process requires the two of you to be emotionally connected. They are in your head, and you are in theirs. Your emotional brains are tuned in and resonating with each other. You can both effectively take a walk in each other’s shoes.  Your child can say to themselves ‘Somebody hears me; somebody understands me; I have relevance.’ This is what makes them feel safe and secure.

However, this doesn’t always happen, of course. Sometimes it all becomes too much and our child loses the plot. What happens here? When put under stress, our brain can sometimes switch from a normal functioning brain, to a panic or rage state where our primitive brain floods the rest of the brain with overwhelming nerve activity, making us incapable of rational thought. This is what is known in the literature as ‘losing it’.

Both you and your child are very capable of losing it. Let’s consider parents first.

We tend to lose the plot when we are tired, or particular ‘buttons’ are pressed (often these are based on our own baggage, such as previous grievances, or childhood memories) or for a whole variety of other triggers. Maybe we just had a bad day at work.

Anyway, along comes Mr Hyde and we go nutso. This can be very confusing even for us big people — our rational neocortex can’t really figure out why it’s happening. Afterwards (and we can just as quickly snap out of it), if we have shouted/ screamed/ smacked/ over-reacted / or over-punished, we may be riddled with guilt and / or shame. Why in the hell did I do that? Or, if it happens recurrently: Why in the hell do I keep doing that?

So, what to do?

If you do have some warning bell that this is about to happen, the best thing you can do is beat a retreat. Run away, escape. Once you click over to rage mode, you’ve lost control of yourself, so the whole situation just goes pear-shaped.

If you don’t have warning, and completely lose the plot, don’t panic. Everyone does this at some stage. This doesn’t make it right, but it’s part of being human. What matters is that we are not losing it all the time. Repeated meltdowns and over-reactions (without remedying the situation afterwards) are what is damaging to our kids and our relationship with them.

Fixing the situation afterward can certainly help.  And it’s up to you:  you are the adult. Wait until you are calm — take a few breaths to get your brain back in working order and don’t touch your child until you are completely calm, as you may do something you don’t plan and later regret, such as slapping or squeezing an arm too tight. (We’ve probably all witnessed a parent in the supermarket talking through gritted teeth and clutching the arm of a misbehaving toddler in a vicelike grip, hoping to hell the other shoppers haven’t noticed. Unfortunately we have.)

So, first calm down, then go and apologise.

You are not apologising for or excusing what made you blow your stack (‘You know, Toby, I am still not happy about the fact you broke your sister’s Barbie   doll on purpose.’)  but the fact you lost it (‘But I shouldn’t have slapped you, and I am very sorry for doing that.’) There is no room for false pride here. You stuffed up, and you need to let them know that. Not only will this help you repair the communication breakdown, but it will also act as a wonderful piece of modelling—of humility.

Also, afterwards, have a think — why did this happen, what role did I play, and how is my child feeling now?  It’s usually worse for them than it is for us — they are physically smaller, and less experienced and knowledgeable than us, so any communication breakdown is more frightening for them. The younger a child is the more vulnerable they feel. In the next post we will discuss what happens when your child loses it.