Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Climbing out of a parenting FAIL

We had a homeschool co-op field trip today. I was signed up to chaperone, but since there were many other moms going it didn't seem necessary, and when a friend asked if we could have a cup of coffee and talk about a problem she was facing, I said yes.

Dropped the kids off, had coffee, did a bit of Christmas shopping, went back to the museum. Paused outside the younger kids' group, and a mom waved me in. Little Guy was having problems with frustration.

Uh-oh. Things had been running so smoothly with outside classes that I'd completely forgotten to prep Little Guy for this one. Our usual conversation goes something like this:

Me: What's the price of admission?
Little Guy: Co-operation.
Me: What will you do if you get frustrated?
Little Guy: Some deep breathing.
Me: What else?
Little Guy: Get someone to help me.
Me: Or...?
Little Guy: Take a break.
Me: And what if you make a mistake?
Little Guy: I try to fix it.
Me: Or...?
Little Guy: I figure out a way to deal with it.

Note to self: do not forget to have this conversation for the three thousandth time.

So the class was basically over, and the kids were doing a craft. Little Guy was overcome with how great the project was, and his vision of what he was going to do was sky-high. But he made a minor mistake, which of course transformed the terrific into the tragic. Snuggler tried to fix the problem for him. But she didn't do it to his satisfaction, and when I arrived Little Guy was sputtering angrily that it was all her fault, and everything was ruined.

Once Mom was there, it was apparently safe to fall apart completely. So he did.

I tried to get him to take deep breaths. He was still rational enough to hear me tell him what to do, but too far gone to do what I said. I wanted to remove him to deal with the problem in private. But the mention of leaving sent him into full-state panic, because (duh) if we left there would be no more opportunity to fix the craft project. So there I was, stuck.

Maybe there's a right way to handle situations like this. I know there are worse ways and better ways, and I know the number one priority is to calm the kid, because nothing else can happen until that happens. But I couldn't calm him down -- not there, not then. And of course he wouldn't panic quietly, couldn't restrain himself from talking back whenever I said something, and we were in public, and I alternated between feeling like Ineffective Parent of the Year and Bad Mommy of the Month. Yuck.

Meanwhile Snuggler -- reminded, perhaps, of the many times when Big Guy had meltdowns in public, and life spun out of control -- began to cry quietly, and to complain that her stomach hurt. She was embarrassed by Little Guy's behavior, and hurt that in return for having helped she somehow became the one to blame.

Snuggler curled up in a fetal position; I rubbed her back, wishing I could make it better for her. (Did I say how mortifying this was?) I whispered, "I'm sorry you had to go through this. I'm really sorry. I should have stayed in the class. You shouldn't have had to be the one to help him." And then, because she was distraught she didn't listen clearly to the instructions for the last step on the craft, and cut something wrong and messed it up. (Bless you, Cindy, for trying to help her fix it.)

Fortunately the last five minutes of the class ticked themselves away, and it was time to leave. I kept Little Guy behind, so we could debrief and calm down and handle the situation. At that point he became hysterical. (It didn't help that it was lunch time, and he had low blood sugar.) But separated from the others he could focus on what I said, and I could enforce listening. After a solid 20 minutes he was able, still hiccuping the occasional sob, to rejoin the group for lunch. But it took 15 more minutes before he could say he was sorry to his sister, and it wasn't until  an hour later that he was able to accept that there might have been another way to look at the flaw in his craft.

And me? I was utterly wiped. Felt like a complete failure. Wanted to patent a portable/collapsible rock for moms to slip into their bags so there's always a place to climb under when the time is right and anonymity is the most wonderful idea in the world. I thought perhaps I could stock it alongside the pop-up brick wall to bang my head against, or by the primal-scream swallower that allows parents to express themselves without having their kids freak out.

More reminders to self:
  • Handling a situation poorly is not the same as being a poor mom.
  • Feeling defeated is not the same as being defeated.
  • If the first 645,214 times you do not succeed, your child will provide you with ample opportunities to try, try again.
  • Courage. Life goes on.


  1. After reading this twice, I still don't see where you failed in this scenario. Sounds to me like you reacted with admirable calm to a really tough situation.

    (Last night's Great Parenting Moment for me: Yelling "Stop yelling! And yes, I see the irony in the fact that I'm yelling at you to stop yelling!)

  2. You may be right; there really wasn't a good way out (though my 'calm' wasn't entirely calm; I could feel myself reacting not-so-well to my inability to make things better).

    Where I fell down on the job was not remembering to brief him; if I'd gone over the how-to-handle-it ahead of time, there's a good chance the meltdown wouldn't have happened. Or if I'd been there I could've nipped it in the bud -- that deep breathing helps a lot in the early stages, but not so much once the panic has gotten a death grip.

    And of course any time your child is *the one with problems* in public, you feel like a failure, even when you're not.

  3. I can totally relate to this pre-event briefing requirement. Kids in my house HATE not knowing what will be happening and how to handle it when what they think will happen doesn't. I just mapped out the whole upcoming Christmas trip on the calendar (what days will be spent in what place with who) so my kids can digest it all ahead of time. Not that life won't throw a bunch of curve balls and mess up our plans, but at least they'll know what's changed and hopefully adjust. Or not. And then they'll have one of these meltdowns you describe where panic has a "death grip" (very apt description!)
    I've been there so many times and I don't think I ever handled the meltdowns nearly as well as you did yesterday. I would get so angry at having to be the mom of the "kid with the problem" that I couldn't think straight or cope myself, let alone help the kid cope. I never realized that most people (especially mom types) weren't thinking that I was a FAIL, they were mostly just happy that it wasn't their kid, that time. So don't patent that rock device truly don't need a rock to hide under!

  4. Hi Julia-
    It might have just been the week for it--I too had a melt-down child in public this week which then rippled to another of my children (and culminated in a hysterically screaming toddler for not just the 15 minute bus ride, but the 10 minute walk home and the 1/2 hour I stayed with him outside our building afterward). It is ugly, it feels bad, and it is so hard to not paint a big L on your forehead. One thing I try to remember is to not use too many words--sometimes our involvement makes it worse if they aren't ready to hear and be rational yet. At least it does in my house. And the sugar crash thing--we have to stock up on Trader Joe's turkey jerkey and granola bars to prevent those--they are a major source of meltdown material in our house. You can't protect your children from pain. It wouldn't serve them, ultimately, if you did. But your kids are so lucky that you show compassion, that you validate their feelings and offer them ways to make it better next time. That's true parenting. Way to go mommy. Now make sure that you get a little something for you, to make sure your cup gets filled up a little this week too...

  5. Bless your heart. That's all.