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COMMENTARY–October 7, 2003

Parental Meltdowns


It is inevitable that every parent sooner or later experiences a meltdown, an uncontrolled or poorly controlled event during which one loses one’s temper and/or equilibrium.  We may not like meltdowns, and we nearly always regret having them, but they happen.  Although meltdowns are generally associated with temperamental youngsters, plenty of adults have them as well.  A meltdown is due primarily to a loss of self-control that often leads one to behave unpredictably. 


The immediate consequences of a meltdown may involve the infliction of unwarranted pain and suffering on another person or persons.  In the case of parental meltdowns, it is often young children who bear the brunt of unexpected parental anger.  Parental meltdowns are stressful and unpleasant for all involved, particularly children.  As much as parents would like to believe that sincere and heartfelt remorse is enough to forgive their unintended behavioral transgressions, the reality is that meltdowns have an impact upon the well-being of children. 


Six decades ago, Ashley Montagu wrote a book called How to Find Happiness and Keep It, and he describes exactly what the title of the book states.  He emphasizes the importance of the experiences one has in the first five years of life. [1]  These experiences are not just registered in one’s memory but in one’s entire being. 


Based upon an individual’s past experiences, particularly those from childhood, a given stimulus will elicit a consistent response from that individual in terms of both mental recall and physiological conditioning.  Thus, if a person becomes angry, it is not simply a mental state of being angry.  Rather, his entire physical being will reflect anger through increases in his heart rate, blood pressure, and muscular tension throughout the body. 


The importance of this point is that once someone is angry, it is not the easiest proposition to simply regain control of one’s temper.  The person’s entire being, physically and emotionally, is engulfed by the anger.  Noting that anything said or done in anger will eventually be regretted, Ashley Montagu recommends that one should never act in anger. 


For instance, Ashley Montagu advocates the redirecting of one’s thoughts to another subject.  He advises, for instance, trying to visualize different ways of writing out numbers in order to regain one’s self-control.  It only makes sense that one is more apt to maintain one’s happiness if one can maintain one’s self-control.


Ideally, then, one will not have meltdowns if one can divert one’s attention and regain one’s composure.  Unfortunately, circumstances do not always support one’s attempt to stay calm and unbothered.  As often as meltdowns can be prevented, they are sometimes too unpredictable for even the gentlest of parents to avoid. 


To give a dramatic example of a meltdown, consider the following unfortunate incident, which involved spilled orange juice.  One day, my school age children poured themselves some orange juice from a pitcher.  I had not bought orange juice in a while, but I had decided to reconstitute a can of frozen orange juice.  They were excited.


I thought briefly about helping them because I remembered that I had closed the pitcher spout.  I reasoned, however, that they would see this and open the spout.  They did not.


In order to pour themselves the much coveted juice, my children lifted the pitcher to a perilous angle that forced the lid and the contents of the pitcher out and onto the countertop and the floor.  I heard the spill, and I responded with an immediate and vocal meltdown.


All I could think about was the sticky mess that awaited me.  Moreover, I was not sure how the wood floor in the kitchen would withstand a half-gallon of orange juice.  I was not optimistic. 


Not for a second did I bother to think of either the pleasure my children had anticipated in drinking orange juice or their sincere efforts to clean up the mess.  In fact, they were already busily using dish towels and paper towels to clean before I headed to the kitchen.  Although I should have graciously accepted this accidental mishap for what it was, I failed to do so.  My response was appalling, and I would have been duly mortified if I had to watch a replay of the incident. 


In contrast, I know for certain that one of my friends would have said nothing.  As a child, she experienced too much of her mother’s fastidiousness about spotlessness.  Thus, she permits her children to make messes on the floor, and she simply picks up her mop or vacuum cleaner and cleans it without saying a word.  She would rather become distressed over things more important than cleanliness. 


I admire my friend’s indifference toward cleanliness, but we are dissimilar, and I most certainly had a meltdown over a trifling mishap.  The impact of that meltdown was significant, though.  Years afterward, my kids still refer to that episode as the worst example of my bad temper.  They mention the “orange juice incident” with ominous implications. 


Although my children never feared or fear the possibility of being spanked or hit in any way, my anger affected their psyche more profoundly than I ever intended.  Such is the consequence of an uncontrolled temper.  Ultimately, it is extremely difficult to justify instilling fear in a child’s life over spilled juice. 


My remorse is sincere, but the damage was done.  Fortunately, most children love and trust their parents unconditionally despite their encounters with the occasional parental meltdown.  Whether parents love their children in a similarly unconditional manner is questionable.


If I look back at the state of my mind at the time of the juice incident, I would have to admit that I was not in a loving mood.  It is hard for a parent to declare unequivocal love for a child when he or she does not particularly admire a child’s behavior or actions.  The fact is that when parents have meltdowns they close nearly all channels of communication.  Much of this has to do with parental self-righteousness and the adamant belief that a child has done something wrong. 


In truth, how often does a parent take the time to hear a child’s side of the story?  In the case of the juice spill, it would have been logical of the children to blame me for having closed off the pitcher spout.  Yet I had no interest in hearing what they had to say. 


For me, the only important thing was to get the floor cleaned instantly and efficiently.  As I frantically mopped up the floor and scolded the kids, I must have been a sorry sight.  Neither calm nor composed, I must have looked insane.  There is no image more pathetic than a parent who has lost his or her self-control.


In contrast, a great role model of a calm and just parent who appears to be incapable of losing his temper would be the fictional character of Atticus Finch in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the middle of the Great Depression in Alabama, Atticus rears two children with the help of a housekeeper after the unexpected demise of his wife. 


Atticus Finch is a model parent.  He treats his children just as he treats all people, with dignity and kindness.  He listens to his children, assesses their cases, and offers a response after deliberation.  He is a lawyer by training, but he is foremost a decent and caring human being.  He has no interest in judging people by anything other than the potential of their goodness and decency as human beings. 


When a reprobate spits in Atticus’ face and threatens him, Atticus calmly wipes the spittle off his face and thinks no more of the man’s threats.  He trusts that the troublemaker accomplished his goals by spitting at him.  Atticus thinks that dialogue will lead to better understanding between adults and children as well.  Therefore, he listens to his children and tries to help them so that they are not frustrated by the varying challenges they encounter in their lives.


Whereas Atticus Finch is calm and self-assured, his brother Jack is also self-assured, but the latter needs to assert his authority.  For instance, Atticus’ daughter Scout fights with her cousin after he slanders Atticus. Their Uncle Jack had warned Scout earlier about her misbehavior and her cursing, so as her elder he undertakes the task of meting out corporal punishment. 


Afterward, Uncle Jack tries to see if Scout has understood her lesson, and she points out that unlike her father, Uncle Jack had not even bothered to learn why she had fought with her cousin in the first place.  He had not, but once he learns what the boy had said about Atticus, Jack wants to punish the boy. 


Atticus convinces his brother that no more punishment needs to be meted out.  Jack comments that he will never get married because he will never understand children.  Unlike Jack, Atticus always has the patience to listen to his children to find out what really happened.  Losing his temper is just not compatible with Atticus’ way of parenting.


It is interesting to note that Uncle Jack’s idea of justice, which entails corporal punishment, was commonly practiced seven decades ago.  Regrettably, it is still practiced today.  Astonishingly, approximately three-quarters of American parents and a significant number of pediatricians advocate corporal punishment in the form of spanking. 


Advocates of corporal punishment advise parents to punish children as Uncle Jack did.  The adult should be calm, collected, and ready to dispense punishment because he or she knows that the child’s misbehavior is worthy of punishment.  If the adult is too angry or distraught, he or she is advised to wait because it is not good for the adult to hit a child when he or she is angry.  The question of whether or not it is morally permissible to hit small children is not even raised by advocates of corporal punishment.  


There are times when issues are discussed without thoroughly evaluating the most fundamental question the issue addresses.  The social activist Noam Chomsky, for instance, discussed this point when he wondered, with respect to the question of war, what difference there was between hawks and doves.  Both sides argue about the costs, benefits, and risks of war without addressing the more fundamental question of why war should be waged in the first place.  He asked what right one group or nation has to seek the harm or death of another group or nation?


Analogously, what right do parents have to hit their children even if they claim that it is in the name of love or discipline?  There is something basically wrong with the fact that a fully grown adult is willing to hit a small and defenseless child, especially one who probably cannot perceive what he has done wrong.  Besides the fact that an adult is so large compared to a small baby or child, one wonders how an adult has the right to believe in his or her moral superiority. 


In the case of Scout and her Uncle Jack, the eight-year-old girl was able to tolerate the beating she received, and she was polite enough to mind her uncle.  There was nothing morally correct, though, about her uncle’s beating.  Appropriately, he felt great remorse afterward because he had acted rashly. 


One may argue that many parents are justified in meting out corporal punishment, and many believe that such physical harm deters future misbehavior.  The real question of why a parent has the right to hit a child is still left unanswered.  No one bothers to ask the question because the answer is that it is plainly wrong for any person to hit another person, be it an adult versus an adult or a righteous parent versus a small baby or child.


Many years ago, I visited a friend and his wife.  They had three small children, ranging from 1 month to 3 years of age.  The middle child was a big 18-month-old baby, and the entire home was child-proofed specifically for this active child.  Even the legs of the dining room chairs were bound together so that he could not climb up the chairs to reach the table. 


My friend’s wife was unabashed about her need to occasionally hit her son with a switch.  She told me that it just takes one quick swat to let him know that he is doing something wrong.  The baby was big for his age, but he was still a baby who could hardly walk, could not say two words together, and who still wore a diaper.  I was dumbstruck and could say nothing.  I knew this woman was a dedicated mother, yet she saw her young baby as a willfully defiant boy who needed to be tamed.


I had another friend who felt the same way toward her son.  She would get upset when she could not get him to do what she wanted him to do.  Sometimes she would look at me and wonder aloud why her son was not as nice and quiet as my son, who was about the same age.  I looked back at her baffled.  Indeed, my son was calm and quiet as a baby, but I never encouraged him to behave any differently from what came naturally to him. 


In truth, my friend actually admired the aggressive and active nature of her son as long as it accorded with her expectations of his behavior.  She was proud of him as a one-year-old who could climb stairs and bravely go down a slide alone, but she hit him as a two-year-old when he pushed the elevator button too frequently at his father’s workplace. 


Clearly, both mothers believed they knew best and had the right to hit their children for the sake of disciplining them and showing them the difference between right and wrong.  These two mothers and the vast majority of American parents who use corporal punishment do not think about the morality of using force against a much smaller and defenseless child in the name of parental love and discipline.


I would argue that children, even babies, are so attuned to the needs of their parents that they are capable of cooperating with their parents.  My mother told me that my sister demonstrated remarkable adaptive behavior when she was an infant.  My father was a temperamental man who was prone to fits of anger, a cultural heritage I unfortunately possess in my life. 


When my sister was six months old, my mother worried that the baby’s crying would upset my father.  My mother hushed her, and my sister started smiling and cooing immediately.  For whatever reason it was, my sister as a young infant was able to cooperate in a way that astonished our mother. 


The baby, by ceasing to cry, probably saved the entire family from experiencing another ugly outburst on my father’s part.  Given a chance, babies and children will do their best to accommodate their parents’ needs.  If not, perhaps the parents either expect too much of their young children or are not patient enough with them.


My children never have to be concerned about corporal punishment, but it is probably equally troubling for them to hear me yelling.  My husband has confirmed that my greatest weakness as a parent is my yelling, however occasional I claim it to be.  For my children and probably my husband, who is a non-fictional version of Atticus Finch, my scolding is just as bad as any awful experience they can imagine. 


For me, the fear the children express is simply a terrible reminder of how powerful parents are in their children’s eyes.  To this day, I am still deeply remorseful about the orange juice incident.  The children just wanted to pour themselves some juice.  Instead, I wound up freaking out about a potentially damaged wood floor. 


To this day, if they remind me of the orange juice debacle, I can only mutter apologies and ask them to please forget it.  Unfortunately, I cannot forget it so easily myself.  I can still recall their delighted giggles in anticipation of drinking orange juice and the clinking of glasses after they climbed up onto the countertop to reach the cabinets. 


I can only wonder how I could destroy such a precious moment for them by responding so negatively to the mishap of spilled juice.  Undoubtedly, the remorse I feel even now reflects how horrible it is for a parent to lose one’s self-control, no matter how self-righteous one appears to be.


It is a most unfortunate experience to be engulfed in a torrent of emotions, seemingly without any semblance of self-control, especially when parents are trying to set a good example for young children.  I certainly comprehended how far from exemplary my behavior was, especially in light of the fact that my children had not really done anything wrong. 


Accidents, after all, occur.  The lesson I took with me from the orange juice debacle is one that I need to remind myself of repeatedly.  As much as I need to be free to be myself, I also must remember that the children are sentient beings.  More specifically, I care about them deeply and love them.   


The fact is that I could not deny my concern about the cleanliness of the wood floor, which apparently is very important to me.  At the same time, I wished I could have listened more acutely to the excitement and joy of my children as they prepared to get their juice.  They were simply too cute and sincere, and I forgot about them and thought only of the mishap.  I was wrapped up in a fury of emotions, and I was hardly in control of my thoughts or actions.


Meltdowns will occur, so I will offer the following pointers for parents to minimize the damage they cause:


    ·                  Never, ever resort to physical violence, no matter how distraught

    one is.

    ·                     Try to minimize the length of one’s diatribe.

    ·                     Attempt to regain one’s composure as quickly as possible.

    ·                     Try to determine if the meltdown was at all justified.

    ·                     Readily admit to error in judgment if one was wrong.

    ·                     Do not perseverate about one’s rightness no matter how justified a

    meltdown appears to be. 

    ·                     Reassure one’s children that they are loved.  If the sentiment is not

    sincere, wait until it is.  Children need to know they are truly loved.


The unfortunate thing about meltdowns is that they do occur, even in loving families, but they should not mar family relations for long.  Most parents feel remorseful and guilty after meltdowns because it is truly unpleasant for them to lose their self-control.  Yet what this remorse points to is how sincerely parents love their children. 


The imperfections of our human nature inevitably come to the fore, but we should do our best to be true to ourselves.  After I told my husband about Ashley Montagu’s recommendation that one should conscientiously attempt to defuse one’s temper, he told me that it will not always work.  He advised me instead to be true to myself. 


The truth is that I cannot hide who I am, be it a woman who obsesses about clean kitchen wood floors or a woman who abhors the sight of an adult swatting a small child.  My husband is right because we have to be exactly who we are, although we should try to challenge ourselves to improve our personality deficiencies.  In my case, I have to grapple with a temper that is still there even though it blinds me less and less as the years go by. 


Revised April 16, 2006




I do think that one of the reasons I started yelling at my children was because a good friend and I had a casual conversation about yelling many years ago.  She told me that she yells at her kids constantly.  I offered commiseration and told her that she was an excellent mother, which she is.


I must have taken our conversation too seriously.  In fact, I think that I subconsciously gave myself permission to yell at my own children.  The consequences have been unfortunate.  It is possible that I might never have yelled at my children as I have if I had not learned that my good friend yells constantly.


Last year, I learned that a woman I admire greatly, Kaneko Ikeda, has never yelled at her children.  She has written a book, and her oldest son (who is now in his fifties) offers a beautiful introduction.  He writes that he cannot recall any incident in which his mother scolded him or his two younger brothers.  In other words, she never yelled at her children. 


One of Mrs. Ikeda’s three children is deceased.  I have met the other two sons, and they are wonderful human beings.  They are intelligent, kind, thoughtful, devoted, courteous, and sincere.  Their behavior reflects the warm and loving nurturing that they received from their mother.


I am reminded again how parents learn to parent.  Had I used Mrs. Ikeda as a role model, I think my children would have been better off.  It is important to learn how to parent well.


[1]   As noted in the October 11, 2002, commentary, Daniel Goleman publicized this concept in his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence.

Copyright 2006 The Nurturing Mother. All rights reserved.
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