Parents, What Do You Do When You “Lose It?”

diane sitting on steps with three kidsI clearly remember yelling something unkind at one of my children and pounding my hand on the wall hard enough to bruise it (my hand, not the wall.)

I can’t remember what the offense was. I’m guessing sibling rivalry that seemed to never end. But I do remember being shocked that I could get so out of control.

Last week on The View they shared a video of a distraught mom in a car with a screaming toddler in the back seat.

Exuding pain and guilt, she shared she felt like a horrible parent who could not measure up to all the messages that say parenting is all about love and joy. She wanted the world to know that all the social media posts that portray motherhood as only warm and fuzzy are creating unfair expectations and mounds of guilt for all the parents out there who can’t live up to the hype.

I believe that losing it is a part of normal parenting.

I am not advocating the kind of loss of control that leads to seriously hurting a child psychologically or physically. But I think it is not wrong for parents to feel their frustrations—whether outbursts, stomping of feet, shouting, storming out of the house (assuming the children are safe for a parent’s brief absence), or other ways of “losing it.” It should not be seen as abnormal or abhorrent behaviors.

Just as children lose it – which technically is called being dysregulated – parents can as well.

We get overwhelmed when kids are defiant, belligerent, and cruel to each other or pets. We feel frustrated when they are destructive, outrageous, hurtful, disrespectful, shriek or cry incessantly – or elicit the long list of behaviors that can push our buttons. (Someone once told me that the reason kids can push our buttons is that they installed them!)

Some of losing it has to do with feeling powerless to control our children’s behaviors.

It also can happen when feeling overwhelmed with life’s stresses that have come to a head in those moments when children demand even more from us, or when we are operating on what feels like empty.

Perhaps our children’s behaviors make us think those behaviors are somehow a reflection of poor parenting.

Maybe we are feeling isolated and alone, having to do a difficult and sometimes boring, tedious and even disgusting job (think dirty diapers and the messes we have to clean up over and over) all alone, without any help or even credit for sticking with it all. Maybe it’s about the images we have that don’t mesh with our realities. Or the expectations created by others that are fundamentally unrealistic.

a young girl, covering her ears and yelling in defiance.

First, know it is unfair for you to think you will never lose it with your children.

Secondly, you can be a bit proactive. Since losing it once in a while is inevitable, have an action plan to call on when your brain goes south on you.

It might involve doing specific things that you find calming: taking a drink of cold water, or doing something very physical like running, jumping, or doing an obscene number of sit ups. If you are in the car try singing at the top of your lungs (which may startle a crying child into silence), call a friend (hands-free, of course), pull into a McDonalds that has a play area, or find a park and take the time to shift gears and play with your child.

It’s really important not to beat yourself up for losing it. Know that all those smiling faces on social media are hiding the reality that virtually everyone has those moments they aren’t proud of. So don’t set yourself up to meet some unrealistic, fake standard of parenting.

Once you calm down, make sure you find ways to let your child know you were having a bad moment, much like they often have.

What to do? Model being human.

  • Apologize and, if possible, make amends (which is also good modeling).
  • Explain the realities of people getting frustrated, regardless of their age.
  • Invite your child to talk about ways they can manage their own “losing-it moments.”
  • Find ways to take a break, get a turn, do something just for you, even if it is only for a few minutes.

Losing it is normal.

a woman with curly hair in a blue shirt biting her nails and looking distressed. Thinking you shouldn’t lose it is unfair and toxic because self-blame leads to shame, and shame lowers our self-esteem and negatively impacts our immune systems.

Make sure you have friends or family members who understand this and can be there for you when you need to say, “Hey, I lost it today. Can I tell you about it?”

By the way at the end of the show Whoopi and Sara Haines shared that they had talked during the break about how important it is for anyone seeing a parent in one of those losing-it moments not to be critical or judgmental.

Instead smile and say something like, “Wow, I know how that feels! Is there anything I can do to help you? I’m happy to hold your baby for a few minutes while you catch your breath/push your child on the swings. We’ve all been there.”

Great advice.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you have ever lost it as a parent, what do you remember? Do you feel guilty? Do you understand how normal it is to lose it occasionally?
  2. Have you ever witnessed a parent losing it? How did you respond? Did it occur to you to extend a message of compassion?
  3. Are you willing to be more compassionate to both yourself and to others who have those moments of losing it?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institutue