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Published August 26, 2013, 10:00 PM

Managing meltdowns: Parents can take steps to cope with frustration

Pensacola, Fla. -- Krissy Nelson’s freedom was only minutes away.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

Pensacola, Fla. -- Krissy Nelson’s freedom was only minutes away.

The mother of two had tucked her children into bed, and she was imagining her blissful evening on the couch when she heard her 3-year-old daughter Jenessa say “Mommy, I have to go potty.”

“I lost it and cried out, ‘What? You have to go potty? You just went!’” Krissy says.

That was the start of her parental meltdown. Krissy, of Pensacola, Fla., vented her frustration as she took the now-crying 3-year-old to the bathroom. Her infant son, Justice, also chimed in with cries.

Amidst the chaos, Krissy looked at her daughter’s face.

“I saw her precious, innocent face,” Krissy says. “She just had to go potty. I felt awful. I looked in the mirror at myself, and I must’ve had horns or something.”

Krissy realized that her alone time, her freedom, was still within reach. She apologized to Jenessa and tucked her back into bed. Closing the bedroom door, Krissy felt like she wanted to curl up in a corner and hide.

“I felt shame. I felt like a bad mom. I felt defeated,” she says.

Krissy, a former Fargoan, shares her story because she wants other parents to know they’re not alone. Her meltdowns and other parenting moments are documented on her Area Voices blog, Not aLone Mom (notalonemom.

areavoices.com, and website, www.notalonemom.com.

“If we’re being honest with ourselves and others, meltdowns are common, and it doesn’t make us bad parents,” she says. “We just have to strive to try and do what we can to find peace and strength and limit them if possible. We can’t beat ourselves up.”

Child therapist Joni Medenwald of The Village Family Service Center in Moorhead agrees – parental meltdowns happen, and it’s OK. Meltdowns are typically brief, intense spurts of emotion that happen in reaction to a stressor.

“Every caregiver has the meltdown moments,” Medenwald says. “You can have the meltdown in the laundry room and go back to the kids. You might still be upset, but the next day you’ll feel better and more like yourself.”

A private place to recover, like a laundry room or bathroom, can help parents collect themselves during or after a meltdown, she says. She urges parents to make sure the children are safe before retreating to a recovery spot.

Krissy’s special space is her bedroom. She shut the door the night of the meltdown, flopped onto her bed and started praying.

“Having a meltdown is not something we should be ashamed to talk about, but it is something serious. We can’t close the door to their bedroom and say OK that’s over, I can move on,” Krissy says. “We have to find a way to release that and find help to improve that. For me, I pray.”

When meltdowns become more frequent, more intense, or when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to calm down after an episode, people should seek help, says psychologist Holly Hegstad of Knowlton, O’Neill & Associates in West Fargo.

“Parenting is stressful, period,” she says. “But, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between meltdowns and frequent meltdowns.”

If meltdowns are frequent, children might interpret that to mean the parent is mad at them a lot, and the child might become more aggressive and prone to anxiety or depression, Hegstad says.

On the flip side, children can learn from seeing occasional meltdowns because they observe how their parent recovers from the highly emotional event.

“Everybody experiences anger and frustration,” Hegstad says. “It’s important for kids to see their parents experience typical human emotions.”

Krissy’s daughter’s body language changed as she saw her mother experience a meltdown. When Krissy was angry, the 3-year-old’s body was tense, and she looked scared. Once Krissy apologized and calmed down, Jenessa quickly relaxed.

Children are extremely intuitive, Medenwald says, and they can sense when people are acting differently.

“Kids pick up on that even if we do our very best to pretend like everything’s OK,” she says.

To remedy frequent meltdowns that are more intense, parents and other caregivers can seek help through family and friends, other parents, parental support groups and professional therapists and counselors. The most difficult part of getting help is seeking it, Medenwald says.

“It’s really hard for parents to do self-care. They oftentimes put everyone else in front of themselves,” she says. “Parents are their best when they are fully charged. When your battery is running on low, you’re not as able to respond in a caring, loving, nurturing way.”

Self-care can be as simple as taking 10 minutes each morning to drink coffee and read the newspaper before the children are up. Krissy has her mother watch the children sometimes so she can have “me time,” or she invites friends over to recharge and have adult conversations.

Krissy admits that although she knows it’s good for her to have alone time, she sometimes struggles with “mommy guilt.”

“Mommy guilt would say how selfish of you to need to get away and leave your children and to put you first. But the voice of reason and hope would say that by getting away, you’re healthier for it,” Krissy says. “Those are your sanity breaks.”

What’s helped the mother of two most is talking about it. Parenting is difficult, she says, and she’s learned that parents can help each other through the rough times by sharing experiences.

“Be honest about what you’re going through,” Krissy says. “In the good, the bad and the very ugly, you’re not alone. We just need to be able to free to talk about this stuff. You’re still a great mommy.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525