Whether your child is 3, 10 or 16, a meltdown can be among the most stressful parenting moments. Much has been written about this subject; see for example see my recent interview When Your Child is Having a Meltdown on the Mother Company blog. Less attention is paid, however, to the fact that successful navigation of these inevitable moments leads to profound love, intimacy and growth for both parent and child.
Not only does your child see that you understand him, but also that you love him enough to hang in there with him when he is at his absolute worst. He sees that you will help protect him by setting limits, and, perhaps most important, that he can survive the intensity of his own emotions. Repeated experiences of being held in this way teach children the essential skill of emotional regulation.
An example from my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, was actually based on an experience with my then three-year-old son. Now 14, and a talented actor/musician, he prides himself on having been one of my greatest teachers, and has given me permission to write about him.
Three-year-old Evan and his friend Robbie were collecting sticks to roast marshmallows. Evan and Robbie’s mothers were best friends, and this marshmallow roast was a highly anticipated part of their regular visit together. But when Evan, who was a very bright but inflexible and easily frustrated child, started poking Robbie with a stick, things began to fall apart. When Evan ignored her request to stop, Dana, Evan’s mother, could anticipate what would happen next. She knew Evan would have a hard time when she had to take the stick away. However, she felt calm and confident, despite the wild, screaming protests of her son when she told him he couldn’t have any more sticks. She felt the supportive presence of her friend, who she was sure would respect her decision to be firm with Evan despite the disruption it would cause to their afternoon.
Dana took Evan indoors, repeating softly through his cries that she couldn’t let him hurt anyone. She reflected his disappointment and acknowledged his excitement about getting together with Robbie. She held him through his escalating screams, feeling a bit embarrassed to have this scene witnessed by her friend, but still able, in the face of these feelings, to focus her full attention on her son’s emotional state. She stayed with him for what felt to her like a long time, while his crying gradually slowed to a whimper. Then together they were able to figure out a plan to still have fun that afternoon without using the sticks. They went outside and rejoined their friends.Certainly things don't always go so smoothly, particularly when a parent is stressed, usually about something that has nothing to do with the child. I've had many such moments with my now teenager children. I hope that, for the most part, I have recognized that things have not gone well and attempted to repair the disruption.
But when things go well, I am able to be calm and respectful of the feelings behind the behavior, which in the case of teenagers usually has to do with anxiety about school, love relationships, or simply finding someone to sit with at lunch. When the meltdown ends, there is a powerful feeling of love and closeness.
D.W. Winnicott referred, an idea less well known than those I have described in previous posts, to an "ego orgasm." Lest people feel uncomfortable with that word being included in a column about parenting, it is not about sex. He described it occurring in a child's play, friendships and even going to the theater, when a play speaks to a person's experience in a profound way. It can be understood as a rush of intense warmth and intimacy. The notion is aptly applied to a tantrum, as when it is over, there is also the release of built-up tension that occurs in the eye of the storm.
So, you see, the rewards are great. A parent experiences a feeling of competence and positive self-esteem. A child moves another step closer to development of a healthy sense of self. Life, not just childhood, is full of disappointments. The good-enough mother, another Winnicott term, does not insulate and protect her child from life's struggles. Again quoting from my book:
She reflects their experience and contains their distress in a manner appropriate to their level of development. She holds them in mind through the difficult times. In doing so she gives her children the tools of empathy, flexibility, and resilience, a secure base from which to become an effective adult.
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