Did you ever have one of those Monday mornings in your house where everyone bounced out of bed with smiles on their faces? Me either. Today was a prime example. For those of you with younger children dealing with tantrum and meltdowns, I’ve got some bad news for you – IT DOESN’T END! As a parent, I have entered the tween/teen meltdown zone. It’s that really awesome range of time where, at any given moment, your child as you know and understand him, completely vanishes and you are left with a totally altered personality. I’d liken it to experiencing any number of scenes from The Exorcist, only live – right in your living room without the popcorn.
The warning signs were there: Cranky attitude, didn’t really know what he wanted for breakfast, claiming he doesn’t eat cereal, saying he didn’t want to go to swimming after school, messing around with his brother. The tipping point came when he began squirting his brother with a water bottle from the bathroom into the family room. Water all over the floor, the walls, the mirror – I’d had it. “You will not have your phone today”, I blurted out. That’s it. I had unleashed the lion. I was in for it. For the next 20 minutes, until he got on the bus, I got so much crap verbally launched my way, I felt like I was standing in a batting cage without a bat. Of course, he stayed right within the line. You know that line. The one where one side will get him banished to his room like Rapunzel, never to see the light of day. The other side is one where you just keep reminding yourself how completely brutal it felt to be 12. Too young to be a teenager, but too old to be a little kid.
The meltdown continued in the car up until the very moment the bus came. He said he wouldn’t get on the bus, he tried to leave his swim bag in the car so he wouldn’t have to go, he launched his backpack out of the side door. It was a first rate tantrum. Finally, I turned and reminded him of the complete and utter wrath that he would experience from both of his parents if he did not immediately get out and get on the bus. He conceded.
Now, as a family therapist, I’d love to say that I stayed calm, cool, and collected. I’d like to say that I kept repeating calmly my expectations for his behavior. I’d like to say that I let him know that he could carry on safely if needed in the car – that I loved him, cared about him, and that I understood how brutal of a Monday he was having. But I didn’t.
Instead, I went there. With every nasty or sarcastic comment, I met him with another one. I think at one point I threatened taking the phone away until he graduated college. I muttered nasty remarks under my breath, rolled my eyes, slammed some doors. Definitely yelled “Fine!” a few too many times. It was ugly. The worst part was trying to keep it together when the bus pulled up. I need this kid to get on the bus, I thought. I was pretty sure one of us wouldn’t make 5 minutes on a drive to middle school.
By the grace of God (or complete rage in my eyes), he got on the bus. I walked into the house looking a bit out of sorts, but gave zero indication that anything was out of sync when my husband came down the steps. I am supposed to be the calm one. How can I admit I’d lost it on a 12 year old?
I’m happy to say that when he got in the car after swimming today, he was his bright and cheerful self (at least for the time being). We talked about the morning and discussed ways that we each could have handled it better.
The funny thing is, I’m pretty sure I had reacted like many parents have on many occasions. I engaged in the dance of the tween/teen years. Where these beautiful human beings still look and often act like children, but begin to interact with you like an adult. In short, they learn how to push your buttons in a more grown-up way. The tough thing to remember, is that we are still the adults. We still run the show (although it doesn’t often feel like that). During these meltdowns, our kids are looking to us to provide boundaries, limits, and a safe haven in which to unravel. It gives them a fence where they can test their emotions, their language, maybe rage a bit if needed. The less we can react to the drama, the quicker the fuse will go out. Unfortunately, I was not great at doing that today. The best part about kids is that even after a hot mess of a day, where I felt like one of the most ineffective parents on earth, I got an “I love you” and an “I’m sorry for today”. I also got a really long hug. I think we both needed that. Nobody gets it right all the time. I am hoping to do it right most of the time. Thankfully, we can try again tomorrow.