This originally appeared in the Washington Post here
Having anxiety meltdowns and temper tantrums in front of your kids during covid-19? Here’s some advice on what to do next.
Maybe we started off “sheltering in place” by listening to podcasts and welcoming the “opportunity” to bake bread or watch too much TikTok and Netflix. Now, we’re understandably challenged to maintain our equilibrium. And sometimes that can come out as grown-up temper tantrums and anxiety meltdowns as anxiety, frustration or anger get the best of us.
No parent can manage their lives perfectly. It wasn’t possible before covid-19 — despite our curated social media posts to the contrary — and it’s not possible now. Trying to be the perfect parent has always distracted us from being the parents our children need us to be: people who can acknowledge our struggles and mistakes with messy grace.
We’re all struggling together.
I never have one second to myself and everyone in my family hates me … the bar for my sanity is very low. — Karen, mother of 4.
I never used to swear at my kids. Never. Now I start every day by walking into my kitchen and screaming obscenities because they always leave it a huge mess. — Annabelle, mother of 3.
We will all have bad moments; it’s how we get through them that matters.
After the anxiety meltdowns:
It can be unnerving for our children to see us really upset or anxious, but we can reassure them by talking about it in a straightforward, compassionate way. For younger children, we can comfort them by saying:
“I’m sorry it was hard for you to see me upset. I feel better now that I [fill in the blank: took a minute, took a breath, exercised, etc.]. Why don’t you pick out a book (or some calming activity) we can do together?”
For teens, you can modify with:
“I’m feeling overwhelmed because of [state general reason]. We’re all figuring it out together. I’m going to take a few minutes to calm myself down, and we can talk about it if you want. Even though I was upset, I can still support you too if you’re struggling.”
After the grown-up temper tantrums:
For various reasons, most of us struggle to express our anger in healthy ways; a grown-up temper tantrum is directly connected to the way we were taught to express — or repress — our feelings.
Just as we experienced with our parents, our children witness or even are on the receiving end of our anger. In the situation we’re in right now, the small acts of living together can bring up all of our anger baggage into some messy moments. And no matter how we express our anger, the following is usually true:
- We love our children and they can be incredibly annoying.
- We’re equally annoying to our children. Our children think our “helpful” reminders are unnecessary and irritating.
- Most of our children are bad roommates; like when they take your computer charger and don’t return it, or when they leave food out and the dog eats it (and the bag it came in). And somehow, they never see the dog vomit on the carpet until you point it out.
- Our concept of time is different. When we tell our children to clean the kitchen, we mean now. In their minds, time is more fluid. They have every intention of cleaning up … sometime in the future.
- No one pushes our buttons quite like the people in our family.
Imagine you’ve just yelled at your kids because they had a loud, obnoxious argument that interrupted a work call. You’ve now locked yourself in your bedroom, furious. How do you walk out of that room and reengage with your family? Pretend nothing happened? Give them death stares? Apologize for losing your temper but be resentful for the understandable reasons you got angry in the first place?
All of those are options, but they tend to bury the conflict until the next blowup.
Or, we can remember that even though we really don’t feel like it sometimes, our sacred responsibility to our children is to be good role-models and provide an emotionally stable home.
Taking responsibility for how you express anger does both. So, keep these things in mind if you’re going to talk to the person who was on the receiving end of your temper tantrum:
- While the way you expressed your anger may not have been the most mature way to show your feelings, you have a right to be upset.
- Don’t repeat yourself or come to the conversation with a long list of grievances to justify your feelings. You don’t need 27 reasons; you only need one. (Repeatedly, teens have told me that when their parents do that, they feel overwhelmed and shut down. Your rational argument comes across as a rant.)
- If you don’t feel like you’re being listened to, stop speaking, take a breath and then say, “I’m getting angry again because I don’t think you’re listening to me. I’m going to take a break from this conversation, and we’ll talk about it later this evening.” Then do what you say: Walk away.
- Your dignity, and everyone else’s, is nonnegotiable.
Apologizing for the temper tantrum shows your children how adults take responsibility for their actions. You’re not apologizing for your feelings; you’re apologizing for the way you handled it. Just be prepared to back up your words with deeds. The next time you’re angry, there has to be at least a small improvement in how you express yourself. Otherwise, you lose any credibility you gained.
Living with fierce grace
No matter what’s going on in the world, we’re all messy. Our relationships are messy. We need to laugh when possible, give ourselves and the people we love a break, and live with fierce grace as we manage ourselves under exceptional circumstances.
Our children must see us admit our mistakes, hold ourselves (and them) accountable when necessary, and strive to manage ourselves with dignity. The moment we do that, our children feel safe, loved and assured that the adult who cares for them can comfort them through difficult times.