Momming with Mental Illness: Tantrums

(not actually a tantrum, but clearly a ridiculous situation)

I think most, of not all mamas deal with tantrums at some point. Kids have big feelings, and some, like my Ladybug, have ENORMOUS feelings, and it’s hard for them to regulate, and for us to help them, right? It’s overwhelming even under “normal” circumstances. When you have a mental illness or three, there can be another ball to be juggled-keeping yourself not just calm, but avoiding your own full on meltdown.

Note: I’m not saying mamas who are healthy don’t struggle or deal with this, only that, in my case, my illness makes it more complex for me.

A lot of times when I feel a very strong negative emotion I get triggered, or, maybe a better word is flooded. At best, it’s a tingle of overwhelm, but it can quickly escalate into full body tension and chaos and even rage. My fight or flight instinct is pretty strong, and it wars within me when I find myself in any kind of interpersonal conflict. At its worst, panic caused by conflict of this type will have me hissing and screeching like a cornered cat-and cornered or trapped, is exactly how I feel. It’s just awful.

So, picture this: the five year old is throwing an epic tantrum, screaming , thrashing, maybe even kicking and scratching, because her feelings are SO big about not wanting to practice her writing, and my firm insistence that she must is SO mean and I’m breaking her heart. I hate conflict, and I am an extreme empathetic, so I feel her feelings too. I’m frustrated with her behavior before the tantrum begins, and as soon as the screaming starts I’m flooded. I’m shaking, I’m terrified, I’m about to hulk out and escalate the whole thing. What can I do? How can I make it stop? How can I love this little girl better and draw behavior boundaries without triggering an episode that will not only damage our relationship but set my mental health back?

I struggled with this scenario sometimes multiple times a day for well over a year. I lived covered in bite marks and scratches, I was frazzled and spent from the floods of emotions, ashamed because sometimes it did turn into me screaming back at her, and heartbroken by my helplessness, because, y’all, my daughter is a wonderful girl. Sweet, kind, caring, compassionate, but highly sensitive and passionate- not unlike her mama. I often say she’s just like me, but braver. I’d never have had the guts to treat my mom the way she treats me. I’d blame myself and ask myself if I was too permissive-I’m definitely not. I set high standards for how I’m to be spoken to and obeyed, but she cares very little.

Maybe the answer was in finding the right consequences. These are hard to come up with because the things that our parents used (namely spanking) are not only frowned upon now, but, honestly, just doesn’t work. We tried giving a swat on the bum if she threw a fit or hit or mouthed off, but it just made her more mad or hurt her feelings, but her behavior did not change. So that stopped almost entirely.

I tried just walking away, and ignoring her behavior. This worked only marginally better. The thrashing and screaming still happened and I could not afford D getting caught in her crossfire, so I started carrying her to her room. This almost never worked, because she wouldn’t stay. The few times she did, she finished her fit and came downstairs herself again-but it never lasted long.

Y’all, this is where it gets hard, because we were stuck like this for SO long. Then I started seeing a therapist, then the big event that was causing my internal stress level to stay at a 9 and reverberate outward passed, and I started to begin really being able to embrace healing. Slowly, as my day to day stress decreased, so did the tantrums. It breaks my heart to write that, because it would be easy to see that and say it was my fault. It’s not. My illness and it’s severity are not my fault. My stress level being that high was a symptom of that illness and not something I was able to control. I am a highly sensitive person and she is my highly sensitive daughter, and we fed off each other. It’s not a fault thing, it’s just what was.

Things are much better now on all fronts, day to day, but there are still conflicts, and tantrums do still happen from time to time. One of my best tools in diffusing a tantrum with Ladybug came from asking myself what would help me if I were flooded. I’d be instantly calmed if the person I felt attacked by stopped and hugged me, and even better, offered to pray for me. A few times in the past few years especially I’ve been in that state in conversation with my mom and lost it and she has responded to my calling to apologize with reminders of her love for me. That is so powerful. So, when I am able to sense my girl’s flood level rising-often it’s already there, she’s a flash flood like her mama-I give her a big hug and tell her I love her and we are gonna pray. This often turns anger to tears and provides a better reset point. In occasion I do get swept into her current and start to escalate myself, and bless her heart she usually screams “Mama we have to pray!!!” which makes me want to cheer! A full on rage fit is incredibly rare now-which is amazing, because less that six months ago she had several most days-and when they do happen, I just call Scott and put him on the phone with her. I know my limits and I know that I don’t need to fight that battle alone, for my own well-being.

We’ve also reduced the emotional aspects of most conflicts that arise, which are her being told to do something she doesn’t want to. We try to say “well, that’s fine, but you won’t get to (insert thing she loves to do) until you do. Then the ball is in her court. Today she didn’t get to play outside or use her tablet because she didn’t finish her writing practice, but we also didn’t fight. Tomorrow the ante has been upped: she will also not get to play Mario Kart if she doesn’t finish. Some days, like today, nobody really wins. She didn’t get to do those things, but she also didn’t finish her schoolwork and nobody got to play outside. More often than not, though, she is motivated by what she wants to do after, and even the times she’s not, at least we kept the waters low and safe.

There’s no easy answer to most parenting challenges, and some are made infinitely more complex by my mental health, but the key is to know you’re not helpless, it’s not your fault, and ultimately, God is faithful to help.

Next up, Homeschooling!

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