As parents, we all have meltdowns now and then. Dr. Rita Eichenstein suggests key ways to deal with stress and frustration that will help you avoid the "end of the rope" and help you and your family feel happier.
Parents of kids with special needs don't often think about how to take care of themselves. Instead, they're constantly planning: If I can just get my kid bathed, fed, and in bed, I’ll be okay…. If I can just get through the parent-teacher meeting…. If I can just get my kid to the tutor… This single-minded focus on their child’s needs is understandable, but they don’t take into account how the stress wears on them. Then suddenly they’re shouting at their spouse, yanking their howling child by the arm, or sitting on the bathroom floor weeping. They are at the end of their rope, and it is a sad and scary place to be.
The best way to deal with being at the end of your rope is not to get there in the first place—more on that later. For now, here are two strategies that will help you calm down and refocus when you feel yourself nearing the edge.
1. Call for backup. They say it takes a village to raise a child. With a child who has special needs, it takes an army. Have a code word you can use with your partner that automatically buys you 15 minutes of alone time to cool down. If you're a single parent, have a close neighbor or two agree to take your child for 15 minutes. Everyone needs a backup buddy—if you don’t have one, now is the time to compile your designated buddy list.
2. Use the S.T.O.P. technique. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Now Effect, popularized this technique of mindful awareness. I've found that it helps overwrought parents pause their spiraling behavior and reset it.
Stop what you are doing or about to do, and just take a moment to breathe and reflect.
Take a deep breath. Breathe in and out; use your breath as an anchor and become mindful of trying to slow it all down.
Observe your body, emotions, and thoughts. Scan your body and notice any sensations. Don’t judge them. Just notice them. Next, how are you feeling emotionally? Frustrated? Irritated? Let it be okay.
Proceed. Ask yourself what is the most important thing to pay attention to right now. Mindfully proceed with a prioritized and calm action.
How to Avoid the End of the Rope
All parents occasionally lose control of their emotions—that’s normal. The goal, then, is to limit the number of times it happens. That’s tricky, because the very things that make a person resistant to meltdowns are scarce in the lives of parents: nutritious meals, exercise, and enough sleep. Parents tend to see these as luxuries from a bygone era, like those lovely Sunday mornings with the newspaper. Not so—healthy food, exercise, and sleep are absolute necessities. They are the fuel that enables you to be a tolerant and loving parent. Reaching the end of your rope is a psychological reaction to physiological stress. To avoid it, you must give your body what it needs to function better.
Even if your days of working out at the gym are on hold and fine restaurant meals are a distant memory, there are changes you can make that will instantly improve your mood and resilience.
Eat a high-protein breakfast. No sugar-packed smoothies or coffee and a granola bar. The old standard still works best: eggs, whole-wheat toast, fruit such as apple or banana, and bacon or sausage if you're so inclined. See 4 other quick and balanced breakfast ideas
Notice how caffeine affects you. I’m not telling you to give up coffee, but do notice how it makes you feel. If you're too caffeinated, it can jettison all your good intentions and push you to a massive emotional overreaction.
Love the body you're in, but keep it moving. You probably do a good deal of walking every day. You can walk in a tense, hunched-up way, thinking about what you need to do next, or you can be in the moment—swing your arms and breathe in the air, and use it to get in a few moments of exhilarating movement.
See a sleep specialist if your child's sleep problems are keeping you awake. Specialists can provide personalized plans for infants or even older children.
If your own insomnia is ruining your nights, turn off the screens (computer, cell, TV) an hour before bedtime. Cuddle with your kid or your partner instead. Physical touch (it doesn’t have to be sex) releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin, which will relax you.
Don’t hate yourself for melting down now and then. We’ve all been there! But if you can change the way you deal with your meltdowns and fortify yourself against them, everyone in your family will be happier for it—especially you.
Rita Eichenstein, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with post-doctoral training in pediatric neuropsychology and special education. Dr. Eichenstein is the author of Positively Atypical: How Your Well-Being Affects Your Special-Needs Child—And What You Can Do About It (release TBD) and the popular blog Positively Atypical.