The kids are arguing with you, they leave mess around the house, they are loud, they push each other’s buttons, they aren’t organised for school. These are all triggers for “straw that breaks the camel’s back” moments of mummy meltdowns. Mum finds herself frustrated, nagging and then yelling and screaming. Most mum’s I speak to never expected themselves to be yell at their children. They expected that they would be calm and organised. Able to strike the right balance between doing things to help their child and having their child taking responsibility for themselves. When I asked mums about what questions they wanted answers to this is one of the things that continually came up... I want to yell less at my kids, and I worry about the effect my responses to them has on them.
In this Parenting Thinking Space, we are going to look at the causes of mum meltdowns and how to prevent them. I will outline one of the major causes of parenting stress and what you can change without a major sacrifice of time. Research has shown that this one thing is a better predictor of mum stress than how difficult their children are.
Before I had children, I used to talk with my girlfriends about how, when we were ready, we would all have children together and meet up to play tennis and have coffee a few times a week. (Which is funny because I hate tennis but that’s not the point). I thought when I had kids my life would be easier, and I would have more time for recreation and spending time with friends. Then the reality of babies hit, and I soon realised that not only is it impossible to time when you will have children, but you also do not have time for tennis nor do you want to play tennis on four hours sleep with a baby crying next to the tennis court!
Of course, once we had realised the reality of babies, the conversation with friends shifted and we would fantasize about how when our children started school we would have the free time to get organised at home, declutter and tidy the house, prepare healthy meals, exercise, socialise and be calmer at home. This is not the reality for most. Most mothers of school aged children are in paid employment. This is partly because we want to have some meaning and contribute to the world outside of the house, and partly because our mortgages and other family expenses require it.
As mothers we have to juggle the morning routine whilst getting ourselves ready for work. We must work out a plan for after school either calling in favours from relatives, using care or finishing work and doing everything. If our kids are sick, we need to work out how sick our kids are and who can look after them. These are not the only stresses in our lives. On our days off we have shopping to do, cleaning, volunteering at school and running around to after school activities. It is so hard to keep on top of everything. Folding and putting away washing feels like a major achievement while the full house decluttering feels like a mirage (as you get closer it moves further away).
To manage the juggle better and to try to be present more for our kids many mums are self-employed or support their husband in running a family business. Living rooms turn into workspaces and mums are running the house and the business literally at the same time. The entry of our children into the teen years often coincides with our parents beginning to have health difficulties which require our attention. It is the squeeze for mums as they are caring downward to their kids and also upward to their parents.
We are working, cleaning, caring, cooking, running around with the emotions of everyone we care for no wonder mums have meltdowns sometimes!
What do we need to do as mums to prevent this? Do we need to be stronger? Harder? Tougher? How do we mitigate the damage we feel we are doing to our kids? Do we need to run around trying to do more for our kids to compensate for the stress dripping down on them? Is mastering the “to do” list the answer?
I had a friend who was struggling with these very questions. For the ease of my retelling what happened to my friend I will call her Sue (this is not her real name of course). Sue had a friend who told her she wanted to help her. This friend of Sue’s however had no boundaries. Sometimes Sue would wake in the morning and find her friend right next to her in her bedroom! The friend said she was being helpful. She was trying to make Sue a better person. The friend arrived as soon as she could in the morning to remind Sue of all the tasks she needed to do that day, and all of the things left from the day before. In the kitchen at breakfast the friend would tell Sue all the things she should be feeding her kids. She had a criticism of almost every food Sue gave them for breakfast and lunch.
The friend was really annoyed with Sue that she didn’t have a proper meal plan for the week. If Sue’s children were complaining at the breakfast table, she would tell Sue that it was her fault because she was too soft on them. If Sue yelled at them, her friend told her that she was being too harsh. Sue’s friend would tell her she was a bad mum about 5 times before she even walked out of the door in the morning. Her friend told Sue she should make more time for her kids.
She said they don’t talk to her because she doesn’t make time to listen to them. Some days she even told Sue that her kids don’t like her. Her friend’s overall assessment was that Sue was grumpy and moody and really questioned what was wrong with her. Her friend told Sue that she stressed too much and should rest, but when she rested, she told Sue off because she should be more on top of the housework and should be working harder to help her kids reach their potential. Sue’s friend was so mean...but she kept letting her friend come over every day.
Why didn’t Sue just tell her friend to get lost? She was not really good for Sue or her family. She put Sue under so much stress and certainly didn’t make her a better parent? Sue’s friend was hard to get rid of though, because this friend was actually inside her head. This friend was not a real person she was Sue’s inner critic. (No, I am not saying Sue was crazy and having a psychotic breakdown she knew the voice was not real.) When we read the constant criticism Sue was experiencing it was no wonder she was struggling with her emotions and ready to yell at any moment.
Parent meltdowns are the result of Parents doing more, and an internal critic that criticises their parenting.
Every honest mother I have ever met has a mean inner critic like this. That little voice inside our heads that tells us we are doing things wrong and could be doing so much better. Maybe yours is quieter and easier to silence. Maybe yours is louder and more convincing. Parents worry they are screwing up their kids and doing a bad job of parenting. Many parents are in fact scared to accompany their children into my office for fear I may judge them for their parenting.
Why do so many parents worry they are doing a terrible job and messing up their children forever?
There are a number of reasons why these thoughts are so prevalent in today’s world. One is that there is more parenting advice than any other time in history. I just went on google to try to find out how many parenting books there are out there. I clicked on the top 100 amazon best sellers and lost myself in overwhelm as I read the titles. Each one making me worry that there was some crucial thing I don’t know as a mum that is going to mess up my kid. It would be okay if all the books gave the same advice. Then as mums we would read “the book” and learn “the way” we would do it well and then feel we are now no longer “bad mums” we are now “good mums” or even “excellent mums”. But the problem is that there are many conflicting views on the best way to parent. So, if I learn one way and do it excellently there will always be some who view what I have chosen to do as wrong.
(GIF from the movie 'Bad Moms', featuring Mila Kunis)
The other reason why the worries that we are messing up our kids is so prevalent is that modern marketing uses that fear to sell us to us. Mothers are a key market to advertisers. We are generally in charge of most household purchases and decisions. We have a huge amount of marketing directed to us daily. Some people have estimated we are exposed to up to 4000 advertisements a day. With the average person being exposed to around 130 advertisements on their way to work. I am not sure how many ads I actually see, but I do know that there are definitely 4-5 on my 5 min school drop off run in the morning and that doesn’t include anything I may happen to see on my phone or computer during the day. Advertisers want to sell to us, and a very common tool is to make us anxious about some area of parenting, and then sell us their product to solve that problem. No wonder we are all feeling that we could be doing better as parents because advertisements are constantly telling us we are doing something wrong. Even a car add I watched recently pointed out how bad we all are at being mindful and present for our children! So, what do we do? How do we get rid of this mean friend inside our heads? Firstly, recognise that the thoughts that we have that we are messing up our kids are in fact just thoughts not fact. They are not necessarily true and have likely been made stronger by well-intended parenting advice and not so well meaning advertisers. It is not helpful for you to be evaluating your parenting this way.
The second thing is to change our internal dialogue. Think about what your mind is saying to you and choose to be compassionate toward yourself. Talk to yourself how you may comfort or encourage a friend. Allow yourself to rest when you need to. Say to yourself things like “of course you are tired given all you do”, “you can rest when you are tired”. When your child has a meltdown moment, or has left yet another wet towel on the floor, take a few seconds to acknowledge internally how that feels and that it is hard. Those few seconds multiple times a day will begin to change how you feel as a mum and takes the pressure off just a little.
At the beginning in the article I said there was one thing that predicted mum stress better than anything else. That thing is self-compassion. Being a friend to yourself.
Self-compassion is the antidote to mum stress. If you can be kind and understanding towards yourself, you can reduce your stress and have greater control over how you choose to interact with your family.
Grownup meltdowns are the result of grownups doing more, and an internal critic that criticises their parenting.
Many grownups feel like they are messing up their children because of an abundance of conflicting parenting “advice” and advertising strategies.
Self-compassion is the antidote to parental stress. If you can be kind and understanding towards yourself, you can reduce your stress and have greater control over how you choose to interact with your family.
Sometimes devices are sought to soothe distress and are not the cause of the distress.
What’s next... I would love to continue to support you as you parent your child through their teenage years. I am planning to expand Parent Thinking Space over the coming months. I would love your input in this expansion. You can let me know what you would like to know more about by responding to the email that has been, or will be sent to you shortly, asking you about the parenting challenges you are facing and what you would like support with. If you do not receive this email please contact me at email@example.com (please remember email is not a secure method of communicating confidential or sensitive information).
Dr Kirstin Barchia PhD, MClinPsych, BPsych(Hons).
For free access to one of Kirstin’s online workshops for parents about How to Build Calm and connection in a household with teenagers visit -