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Crouching Tiger, Angry Toddler: Parenting in the Trenches

By Alex Harrison, LCSW

6:30 a.m.

The 5-year-old rolls out of bed without protest. We gather in the kitchen, but before my husband and I can begin tag-teaming breakfast, our boys hug us tight. We scoop them up into a giggling group hug, and as I feel little arms around my neck…I think to myself: “This is going to be a great morning!”

Not so fast, says The Universe.

Cut to five minutes later, and the 3-year-old has thrown himself onto the floor screaming. A cereal-related tantrum continues for the next 45 minutes, up until the moment we dash out the door for school. The ride to school features more wailing tears and bickering over a matchbox car.

As I pull away from the school, my entire body is vibrating with what I like to call the “Momatov Cocktail”—a highly flammable mixture of adrenaline, cortisol and rage. And it’s only 8 a.m.

Whether you’re parenting toddlers who struggle to self-regulate, teenagers who have perfected the Art of the Eyeroll, or something else entirely…it’s HARD in the trenches, y’all! And the moments in which the children we love act completely unloving truly impacts us.

Our bodies are designed to respond to our children; feel-good hormones like oxytocin and prolactin physically help us feel bonded to them. But when things aren’t feeling so good, our bodies react in a big way.

Ever notice your body’s response when you hear your toddler scream, or sit with your teenager through a sobbing meltdown? The surge of tension through your body, the quickening of your heartbeat. Visceral feelings of anger, helplessness or frustration. You’re not having that response because you’re a subpar parent who can’t keep it together. You’re having that response because you’re a human parent. And in the moment of tension, your sympathetic nervous system doesn’t discriminate between a pissed-off 3-year-old or a crouching tiger.

Fun, right?!?

Recognizing that your stress response is completely normal is the first step to managing it more effectively. The following are a few other thoughts to keep in mind as you navigate the stress of parenting:

  • Your kid’s meltdowns are NOT a referendum on you as a parent. Your kids are still figuring out how to have and express big emotions, no matter how perfectly you show up as a caretaker and parent.
  • You can only truly manage your own emotional experience. Name your feelings. Own them as valid. Practice responding to them in a way that matches your values. Bonus: even imperfectly executed, you are giving your kids a powerful model for navigating emotional health.
  • You’re not alone, despite the curated posts that your friends plaster on social media. Behind every perfect moment captured in a photo are dozens of moments of annoyance, exhaustion and even pain. When other parents in your tribe ask you how it’s going, feel free to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Authenticity begets authenticity.

And by the way: I’ll be reminding myself of all this when it’s time to wrangle four children into coordinating outfits for the annual holiday family photo. Solidarity, fellow comrades. Solidarity.

Written by

Alex Harrison, LCSW

A clinician at heart, Alex believes that recovery happens wherever there is authentic community. As a therapist at ERC's adult treatment center in Denver, she specialized in direct care to patients…