“A parent’s unconscious is a child’s first reality.” Louis Cozolino
“Love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8
Brandt had been crying for over an hour. I mean this guy was straight singing the blues wailing. And there was simply no getting away from him. We were stuck in the car driving to Breckenridge for the day as a family, trying to get that little break from life’s treadmill.
This was all supposed to be relaxing. The best laid plans, right? We timed it all out and executed it perfectly so Brandt could take his nap on the car ride. And he wasn’t playing his part.
An hour of a child crying is a form of torture. My nerves were crackling now, buzzing with white hot electric irritation. I tried to focus elsewhere. On the music, on the road, on my breathing. And then I just lost it. The caldron kettle of boiling Sam boiled over.
It wasn’t anything intelligible, not english or spanish or anything. Just a guttural yell. Like Jim Carrey in that scene in Dumb and Dumber (“Wanna here the most annoying sound?”).
And Brandt stopped.
I felt instantly terrible. The fact that he was just a little guy washed over me like a tidal wave. I’m six times his size. What am I doing yelling back at him? And by the way, who’s the kid in the car here?
I learned a hard lesson in the car that day. Sometimes parenting comes down to this one thing: Not having a meltdown of your own. Seriously. Sometimes the first and best thing you can do for your child is not lose it yourself. Or at least save it until you can scream in a pillow in the next room and not lose it in front of them.
This sounds easy. Its not easy. Not at all.
Like when your child kicks you in the face while you’re trying to get on his clothes. Or you find him drawing on the wall or throwing something in the toilet. Or when she throws a tantrum for no reason at all, just because, and now you’ve missed the chance to make that appointment or dinner or meeting with your friend.
The other day during breakfast Brandt got mad and hit the table in anger. But his aim for the table was off and instead he sent his bowl of oatmeal careening off the table. An explosion of oatmeal and broken ceramic bowl sprayed out over a five foot radius. Brandt of course started laughing because oatmeal explosions are cool.
I on the other hand, sat deadpanned thinking of the washing and the scrubbing and the sweeping and the vacuuming and the breakfast I just made seconds ago that I would now have to make again. And simply the pure shock that my son had effectively just thrown an oatmeal grenade.
I knew the next 30 seconds mattered a whole lot. I knew I needed to keep myself together before I could do anything to intervene with Brandt. I could hear William Wallace in my ear, “Hold! Hold!” I took a really big breath. And then I gave Brandt a time out for smacking the table. And I proceeded to clean it up.
And I didn’t lose it. Hey, I’m growing up too.
This struggle is not something you outgrow as your kids get older. As a counselor, I’ve met with families after a teenager gets caught drinking or sneaking out or having sex. And sometimes the parents’ reaction, read meltdown, to the teenager becomes a bigger issue than the original act of teenage rebellion.
Here are a few actual scenarios I’ve heard through the years. Fathers who rage red faced and punch holes in the wall. Mothers who literally stop talk to a child and wear a face that makes you think someone has died. Some teenagers get a grounding more akin to house arrest. And parent lectures that can last for hours, filling a child with so much moralism the kid can’t breath right anymore.
Its out of control. And wrong. Even though I get the stress that got them there.
Even brain research affirms this struggle. We now know that an infant’s emotional capacity is fully developed by eight months in the womb. This means that in utero, a baby can already fully feel every emotion from anger and fear to joy and sadness. A baby can also pick up on and intuit other’s emotions to the same degree. Its why children cry when they hear another child cry.
But the parts of the brain that regulate emotion don’t fully develop for several years into life. And in some ways, our brains don’t reach their maturity until somewhere in our twenties (although some of you might wonder if it ever happens).
This means children can feel the things of life very deeply but cannot cope with these feelings on their own. Children have to depend on their parents to regulate emotion and handle their insides. Literally your child is borrowing your brain’s regulatory structures. He’s taking your cues, intuiting from you how you cope. And its this body to body relational connection that calms him down. If you remain calm, he can be calm.
Put another way, your child is borrowing your maturity. Which is why it feels like you’re holding it together for everyone. You are. That’s why parenting is so tiring some times.
Of course, all of this assumes you are remaining calm. And in the car that day, I clearly was not.
So what happens when you do you have that meltdown like I did?
Because you do know you will have that meltdown, right? Lets have the come to Jesus moment right here, right now. Its going to happen. You will reach your limit as a parent if you are trying at all to be invested in your children’s emotional life.
What do you do then? I once heard John Eldredge say he is banking his whole parenting career on this one verse: “…Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). I like that a whole lot. And I’m totally stealing it.
Maybe that’s the one thing of parenting. Learning to love especially when we’ve blown it. Sometimes we have to get down (or up) to eye level with our children and say, “I am sorry. I lost it.” My son Brandt has more than a few times seen me take a time out of my own.
Next time parenting pushes you to the brink, next time your child loses it, and you hold it together or even save your meltdown for the next room, stand tall, pat yourself on the back. It may not feel like much, but you are giving them a great gift. You’ve done the work of parenting.
And next time you don’t hold it together and lose it, apologize. And get back to loving and playing.