I didn't mean to start bawling in front of my four-year-old, but I felt pretty miserable at that point.
We were on vacation, and I got struck down with food poisoning the second day of our trip. I was in our hotel room, sitting on the bed, wanting to die. I was covered in oily sunscreen, my stomach hurt, my joints hurt and I felt like I was going to barf at any moment.
The poor kid was pulling on my hand, wanting Mommy to go outside with him and Daddy and all I could think was: I just want to nap in a dark room alone for a very long time. And that's when I started crying, much to my son's surprise. He looked at me and said, “Are you okay, Mommy?”, and then proceeded to give me a big hug.
The nausea I felt at that point slowly gave way to a big case of Mom Guilt. After all, we're not supposed to ever lose it in front our children, are we? We're supposed to hold in whatever discomfort we're feeling at the moment and be the unmoving rock in their lives, unflappable in the face of storms, high tides...and bouts of stomach discomfort.
What happens, though, if you can't keep it all together, and your kid all of a sudden, is comforting YOU?
“Parents are under pressure to stay calm, healthy and composed at all times. It can be frightening for children to see a parent 'lose it' from time to time,” says Barbara Neitlich, a psychotherapist for children, adolescents and adults www.integralpsychotherapy.biz. Neitlich points out that this is not detrimental to children, however. “What is detrimental is not processing what has happened after the fact.”
When a parent loses it in front of a child, the best response is to acknowledge it, says Erica Curtis, a licensed marriage and family therapist www.therapywitherica.com. “By acknowledging how we handled a situation...we model for our kids how take responsibility for their own mistakes and how to problem solve new strategies for dealing with difficult situations. This not only helps a child to understand (and be less fearful of) whatever they witnessed, but it also goes a long way toward moral and emotional development in our children.”
Clinical psychologist Julia Simens www.jsimens.com offers a similar point that these “human” moments for parents can translate into teachable moments for children.
Simens, who has traveled around the world with her own two children, recalls one time feeling faint in a major overseas airport. Instead of hiding this from her children, she told her oldest son that she was sick. His reply: "Don't worry Mom, I will be sure to grab your purse because it has our passports and you won't want it to get lost."
If another parent or adult is around to help in these situations, they can talk to the child, using certain words to describe the feelings of the other parent and of the child, Curtis says. Such as: "Mommy is feeling angry right now. Sometimes when people are angry they have a hard time using their words. Is it scary to see Mommy so upset?"
If the parent is a single parent or the other parent is not immediately available, “it is important for the parent to check in with him/herself and identify what he/she needs to do to in that moment to calm down and regain composure,” Curtis suggests.
While it's always a good rule of thumb to remain calm in various situations with your children, “what we have to remember is that we are human, not robots,” Neitlich says.
“As well as modeling calm behavior, it is important that we demonstrate that parents are not always perfect. More importantly is showing them how to get back to a balanced state” in the event we do “lose it” in front of our kids.
Incidentally, I did accompany my son to the beach that day. The cool breeze of the ocean and his hand in mine, made me feel much better.