02/04/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Damage Limitation Following a Parental Meltdown

I have found one of the hardest things to deal with as an RIE parent is the enormous guilt I feel when I "get it wrong" or "slip up." Because I now know the effects of expressing anger, not remaining calm or just generally losing control when dealing with the children, I am always upset with myself when my own emotions get the better of me. I'm sure that if I had not learned what I have learned following wonderful guides such as Janet Lansbury, Lisa Sunbury Gerber and Magda Gerber, I would travel along in blissful ignorance of the potentially confidence-reducing effects my reactions could have on my children, not to mention how damaging they would be to our relationship.

Unfortunately, even knowing this, I still occasionally (quite regularly even) have moments of lapses in my peaceful parent status. I have blogged about some of these that have been more extreme, but I had a little moment of realization today when I dealt with a scuffle between the two children a little more irately than I intended. Of course, I felt immediate remorse as I usually do, but for some reason today I decided to try to make amends. The results astounded me.

It all began when I was hanging the washing outside, just off the playroom, while my two daughters Lucy (2.5 years) and Penny (1.5 years) were playing inside with the neighbor's children (aged 8 and 6 years). The 6-year-old came to me to let me know she thought Penny had a dirty diaper. I thanked her and as I had just finished hanging out the last towel, I went straight inside to check.

As I got near to her, the 8-year-old pointed to the back of Penny's leg and said, "What's that?" I realized straight away that it was poo coming down the back of her leg and immediately the Category One situation got ramped up to a Category Four! I let Penny know that I needed to change her diaper and was just going to grab some supplies. As I turned to locate these supplies, a scuffle broke out between Penny and Lucy. I noticed Penny was now sitting on a ride-on car and Lucy was trying to get it from her.

Instead of calmly dealing with this situation, I made the split-second decision to continue getting the wipes, etc., before intervening. I figured the poo would now be on the car and the car would need cleaning before I could let it be used anyway. As I grabbed the wipes from just outside the room, I heard Penny's cries shift from "scuffle" cries to "hurt" cries. Sure enough, when I got within range I saw Penny sprawled on the floor and Lucy starting to climb on the car.

One of the older girls let me know that Lucy had pushed Penny. Now, at this point I was actually more cranky with myself for making a poor decision and leaving the room than I was with Lucy for pushing Penny, but it didn't manifest that way. I grabbed Lucy quite roughly and abruptly put her on the ground away from the car before picking it up and angrily shouting, "No one is having the car now," and shoving it up high out of reach without any further explanation. I then picked Penny up and let her know I was going to change her diaper. I laid a towel on the floor in the room next door and proceeded to do so. Lucy entered the room and in a show of her dislike for how the situation was handled, made a swipe at Penny which I was by then able to calmly block and divert with an "I won't let you hit Penny..."

After the diaper change, both girls went back to the playroom to play while I set about cleaning and disinfecting the car and the floor around the contaminated area. I then offered the cleaned car to Penny, who by this stage was not interested and had moved on. I left it sitting there.

I then noticed Lucy sitting at her desk quietly drawing in her art pad. Having had time to reflect on the situation, something told me I needed to bring it up with her and apologize for my reaction. I knew I had handled the situation poorly and I wanted to try to acknowledge her feelings post-event. I moved near her and initiated a conversation. I started with, "You're doing some drawings, huh?" and when I didn't get a negative response I continued, pausing after each statement... "I'm sorry I lost my temper with you. I know you really wanted to sit on the car that Penny was on. You know I can't let you push her. I should have been more gentle with you when I moved you away. I was feeling a little frustrated when I saw Penny crying and I wanted to change her diaper so her poo did not get over everything."

At this point, Lucy stopped her drawing and stood up on her chair reaching up for me to pick her up. She then wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed me hard into her with her little fingers. As she cuddled me tightly like this for quite some time, she calmly and matter-of-factly said, "That was my car," letting me know with her limited articulation that she probably had the car first. I knew then that she had been thinking about the incident as well. She had not simply gotten over it and moved on as it can be easy to think. She was internalizing the event and my reaction, and further convincing herself that my love for her may not be as strong as it is for Penny or may be conditional. She continued to cuddle me for what seemed like forever before pulling my cheek towards her and lightly kissing it.

As far as "aha" moments go, this was up there for me. How many times had I lost my temper with the girls but failed to resolve it with them, instead using the benefits of time to cure all angsts? Lucy had shown me not in words but in actions that she forgave me and furthermore appreciated that I had taken the time to talk through it with her. By speaking openly with her about my remorse, I could successfully dispel any of those horrible thoughts she may have been having about the depth of my love for her.

I listened to a podcast recently in which Richard Fidler from ABC Local Conversations spoke with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist, about how a parent's interaction with his or her children, particularly in moments of high stress, will affect how those kids' brains are "wired." It was a relief to hear her say that "it is impossible to be an intentional, thoughtful parent all the time." She also stated that our children give us "millions of opportunities to connect with them throughout their lives" through moments that are high stress.

I do think, however, that when I am not "thoughtful" in my interactions with my children in a particular instance, it would be nice to work through this with them in the aftermath and in doing so, recreate some of those opportunities for connection. It sure felt good doing this today.


You may also enjoy reading:
The Secrets to Successfully Sportscasting my Children's Squabbles (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Respectful Parenting Is Not Always Easiest (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Bonding to Our Children Through Conflict (Janet Lansbury, Elevating Childcare)