Parents want to shield their children from adult stress and have a tendency to bottle up their emotions in an effort to create a warm, calm environment. That’s a good thing to do and society owes them one, but allowing stressors to stack up without management tends to create a pressure-cooker of emotions. Sometimes it takes the tiniest incident involving the child — some spilled juice on a white carpet or a squabble with a sibling — to send a parent over the edge. Luckily, recovering from a parental meltdown can be good for everyone involved if it’s accomplished with humility and honesty. (And, no, that’s not an easy thing either.)
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Anger Management
“I think of it as an iceberg. The bulk of the stress is underneath the surface,” says Dr. Stephanie Smith, a clinical psychologist based in Erie, Colorado. “We’re not really paying attention, but it builds up throughout the day. It all piles up, but when we reach a certain level the tiniest little thing can tip us over the edge: we’re out of Cheerios or whatever. It’s silly little things that end up being the breaking point.”
But if the parent has difficulty addressing emotions, seeing an adult crumble before their eyes can lead a child to blame his or herself. That’s why flared emotions, be them irritability of full-blown freakout, should be addressed to the child directly after they happen, creating a teaching moment through modeling behavior.
In the aftermath of an emotional breakdown, parents can take what they feel is their lowest point and teach their children valuable life lessons about emotional management. In fact, an emotional failure a parent can end up being good for a kid’s cognitive and emotional development. That good begins with a conversation once the tears stop falling.
“It’s ok to take a few deep breaths, or an hour, (after a breakdown), but make sure to come back to it,” says Smith. “In an age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate way say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve had a really rough day, and I kind of lost it for a minute. I’ll do better moving forward to deal with those feelings before that kind of thing happens again.'”
That’s how the healing begins. A child that hears this kind of emotional honesty from a parent can align it with own emotional experiences. This helps them develop a sense of empathy that extends beyond their parent and into the world at large.
“Model good healthy coping strategies. That doesn’t mean spilling your guts to your kids. It’s naming the emotion you’re having and letting them know some basics about how you’re going to manage it,” says Smith. She suggests talking to children about the mechanics of managing difficult emotions. Parents can even share techniques like taking a walk, or reading a book, or listening to a favorite song. Because a parent’s coping mechanisms (aside from martinis) can actually help children too.
It’s also important to move past the incident as soon as possible. There’s a temptation for adults to dwell on events, to continue to revisit them ad nauseam. For children, it’s essential to teach the lesson, instill the wisdom, and move on. It’s a lesson adults can learn from too, and in the end, parents and children can learn how to prevent the next meltdown before it even happens.
“I think it’s ok to let our kids know if we’re having some kind of emotional experience,”says Smith. “You’re not going to tell them every deep dark worry of yours, but you might say ‘I had a rough day, sorry if I’m a little irritable. I’m working on it.'”