So, this morning, I was about the worst mom ever! My daughter – as I’ve mentioned – is on the Autism Spectrum. Though high functioning, she faces challenges every day that others just don’t seem to face. Among other things, we deal with anxiety and rigidity. These were the major issues facing us this morning. Now, usually, when we deal with helping her get past her anxiety and the rigidity that comes with it, we set up a behavior plan. In the plan she is gradually exposed and rewarded for each step toward success. This is a gentle, positive way of handling a situation that, for her, feels quite serious. It is respectful of her feelings, supportive of her abilities and disabilities, but still challenges her to reach higher and improve. The issue at hand did not allow for that. The issue at hand was a health issue that had to be dealt with. I will leave out the details out of respect for her privacy, but she has developed a condition that requires treatment every morning and evening. She is afraid of the treatment.
Now, moms, we all know that the hardest times of the day are in the morning, trying to get everyone out the door, and in the evening, trying to get everyone to bed. These are probably universally the times when us moms are not at our best. So here I am, trying to get everyone out the door – get them dressed, feed them breakfast, take the dog out, make lunches….yadda yadda yadda – and my daughter is so paralyzed with fear that she will neither treat herself, nor let me treat her. It took 40 minutes to get her treatment done – and it shouldn’t have taken more than 40 seconds. And I lost it. I absolutely lost it. I was screaming at her. I knew this was her disability. I knew the fear was real. But I just couldn’t handle it anymore. This has been going on for a week now. I am trying to take care of everyone’s needs. I had the added pressure of the morning rush. And then there was the plain old fact that I was just physically and emotionally exhausted. I had nothing left in me to be a good mom.
You see – the thing about being a mom is – even if you’re at your worst – you’re still on duty. Your kids’ needs and problems exist whether or not you have the strength to deal with them. I think in general I’ve learned how to manage pretty well. But there are just times where the mental strength required isn’t there. I know you’ve all been there. I know I’m only human and it happens to everyone. But the guilt is overwhelming. This impressionable little person whose brain is developing on my watch was damaged today. Where she needed support she received anger. I love her more than anything else in the world, and I let her down. But what can I do? I’m human too. I have needs too. I have an end point too – a point where I just can’t keep going. These times, though not the norm, do occur. But where do I go from here? As I see it, I have 4 choices:
- Blame my child – If she hadn’t behaved as she did, I wouldn’t have lost it. It is her fault that I lost it. She needs to be a better kid. The problem here is that she is just a kid. It is my job as her mom to teach her, to support her, to instill in her the skills she will need to cope with her anxiety and to move forward so that she will grow into a well-adjusted adult. Yes, Autism makes this task harder, but it is still my job to help her grow to her full potential. I simply can’t blame her.
- Blame myself and wallow in my mom-guilt. Ok, so by taking this route, I am not blaming my child and I am recognizing my own role and fault. (And truth be told, I usually stay here for a bit.) But is this helping anyone? Does it help me? Does it help my child? NO! Nothing will change. Nothing will improve. If anything, the emotional weight of my guilt will just prompt me to overreact in other situations.
- Deny and move on. So, we all do this from time to time. Sometimes it’s a necessity to do so – especially as a mom. Life goes on in spite of the pain my child and I are both feeling, and you need to get it together and keep being mom. It is ok to do this for a time (for example, I had to get my daughter to school, so there wasn’t time for us to deal with this. If I am going to make anything productive happen in my day, I am going to have to push this event to the back of my mind and move on). But what happens if it is never dealt with? What happens if I never evaluate what happened? What happens if I do not have a healing conversation with my child? What happens to her? What happens to me? What happens is the emotional scars of this event will not properly heal for either of you – and whether you are conscious of it or not – they will affect you and your child in the future. Additionally, you will not have the opportunity to allow your mistake to be your teacher. It will simply be your mistake. And chances are – by not letting it be your teacher – you will repeat it. The damage done will not be an isolated event but a pattern. And once it becomes a pattern, it will have lasting effects.
- This brings me to option 4. Let your mistakes be your teachers. As moms, we are inevitably going to get it wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong as I did this morning. But what happens if I face it square on? If I take the time to identify the cause of this mommy-meltdown? (cause it wasn’t my daughter’s behavior. I am able to handle her behaviors with patience and grace. Why couldn’t I this time? That is the question.)
Taking the time to evaluate and identify the cause of the problem is absolutely the best thing you can do. It allows you to do the following:
- Understand what issues have been going on in your family that need to be addressed: In my case this morning, my daughter’s ADHD/Autism causes her to take far too long to complete any task – and it has been frustrating me for a long time. She takes 20 minutes just to go to the bathroom and brush her teeth. Another 20 to get dressed. She gets distracted a million times from every task and I am repeatedly bringing her back. This is incredibly frustrating! It has been for a very long time. But I haven’t dealt with it. There has just been too much else to worry about. I’ve been putting it off. But now, we have this added curve ball of not only an added step to the routine, but a step that triggers her anxiety. My terrible temper this morning was just the result of an unchecked problem being brought to the surface. I HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION TO THAT SIGN!
- Make a plan to prevent future frustration. Think about the ongoing problem and what possible solution there might be to solve it. Make a plan. In this case, my daughter helped me make the plan. We are going to set an amount of time for each morning task and set a timer. Any time she completes the task in the assigned amount of time, she can add a marble to a jar. Every time I give her an instruction and she follows it without additional prompts and reminders, she can add a marble. Every time she does a chore without needing to be told, she adds a marble. You get the picture. When the jar is full of marbles, she gets a reward. (I usually make these rewards valuable in and of themselves – like a family outing of her choice.)
- You can have a healing conversation with your child. You can speak calmly but honestly with your child about why you lost it. Admit you were wrong. Apologize. The benefits of this conversation are many. If your child is young, you can present a plan you have made to help these “mommy-meltdowns not to happen again. If they are older, you can enlist them to help you make the plan. – You will heal your relationship with your child. – You will model for your child what healthy communication looks like: Expressing feeling in a calm, kind and clear manner; admitting when you are wrong; explaining how the other person’s actions affect you in a calm, kind and clear manner. This modeling of healthy communication between 2 family members will follow her throughout her life; it will improve her relationships in her marriage, with her children, in her career. – You give your child a chance to have a voice and to say his/her piece (with respect, of course). Just because they are children does not mean their feelings about what occurred are less valuable. If anything they are more valuable as the emotional experiences they are having are physically mapping their brain and will influence the way they handle future emotional situations in the future (see Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson). By giving the child a chance to say their piece, and you acknowledging their feelings as legitimate, you have a chance to help them heal and a chance to teach them and support them – literally wire their brain to help them handle future conflicts in a good and healthy way.
The point I want to make is this. If your broken relationship is not properly reset, it will be re-broken over and over again. But, if your relationship with your child is broken – even for a moment – and you take the time to treat the wound and help it heal properly it will become a moment of tremendous growth for you and your child. In some ways these moments provide opportunities for the most valuable parenting you may ever have a chance to do.