What I Learned About Our Need for Connection from My Son’s Meltdown
My three-year-old had an epic meltdown yesterday. “Game of Thrones” season 8 epic. The huge battle scene in the “Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King” epic. Metalllica’s Black Album epic. And for that matter, the Beatles’ White Album epic.
The morning started off well, actually. Our family has been a bit stressed as we’re getting back into the groove of things after the holidays, as so many of us are. The Missus started school again this week and left very early yesterday for school. We had all enjoyed spending more time together during her holiday break from her studies, especially my son.
Saying goodbye to her when she leaves in the morning has sometimes been very hard for my son, so I was a little surprised yesterday when there were no tears at her departure. “Goodbye!” he said, smiling and continuing to play. She kissed him goodbye, then me, and wished us both a good day.
I was still getting ready for my day and I had a conference call I had to hop onto, so as it was just me, I let my son watch a few minutes of TV. When my call was done, I told my son that we were going to turn off the TV in a moment as he has watched enough for the day. “Okay,” he said flatly.
“I want some Cheddar Rockets please,” he said, asking for his favorite crackers from Trader Joe’s. “Okay buddy, but I need to turn off the TV like we talked about.” I grabbed the remote and turned off the television.
“Five . . .”
Now, my son loves his Cheddar Rockets. And he loves his television. And he really loves eating Cheddar Rockets while watching television.
So turning off the TV didn’t go so well.
“Four . . .”
First, there was whining. “Daddy, you turned off the TVeeeeeeee. . . .” He rolled over on the couch, burying his face in the pillows.
“I know I did, buddy, you’ve watched enough TV for today. Do you want your Cheddar Rockets at the table?”
“Three . . .”
My olive branch was flatly refused. “NO!” he shouted. “Okay, buddy, well, when you want your Cheddar Rockets, let me know and I’ll get them for you, okay? I’m going to get a few things ready and get you dressed too, okay? Then we can go have fun at the barber shop!” I needed to get my hair cut, and this was the only chance I’d have this week to do it. And he usually liked going to the barber shop. The barber shop had really fun toys.
Another olive branch. Another refusal. “I don’t wanna get dressed! I want to watch TV!” he opined.
“Two . . .”
“I know you do, buddy. I can hear that you want to, but we’re done with TV for right now. Let’s get ready, okay? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
As I turned, I could hear his whines turn to soft sobs. I felt my jaw harden; I was getting a little impatient.
“One . . .”
“Oh honey, I know,” I said, drawing close to him. “I know it’s hard when I turn the TV off. But we need to get ready to leave, okay?” But his whines and crying continues.
“I DON’T WANT TO GO!” His sobs had turned to heaving, his whole body churning with his tearful anger. I rubbed his back and held him. But I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t get why turning off the TV had prompted such a reaction.
“I’m sad,” he said when I asked what was wrong. “I’m sad that you turned off the TV.”
More whines. More crying. More anger. After a few minutes, I began to feel overwhelmed.I couldn’t comfort him. I noticed my anger rising. “What is going on?,” I said to myself, getting up abruptly while telling him I’d be back. As I kept getting ready, preparing his clothes and putting on my shoes, I could still hear his crying.
When I started to get him dressed, he angrily refused at first. “NO!” he screamed, sobbing. “I know, buddy,” I said coldly, “but we need to get dressed.” I was frustrated, tired. He’d been crying for 20 minutes.
As I put on his shoes and prepared to leave the house, I was struggling. I felt like a failure. I felt like a shitty father. I wasn’t being patient enough. I wasn’t being understanding. And I realized that I was getting lost in my emotions. I was overwhelmed by them, letting them call the shots, so that I was being quick, curt, and unloving toward my son.
When we get lost in emotions this way, Brene Brown calls this “falling down.” We become lost to ourselves, engulfed in our pain and disconnected from our true selves. The young, vulnerable, wounded part of us has been injured again, and our egos come rushing in with defensive anger or blame, or we can turn to addictive behavior to disconnect from our hurt.
We left the house and got in the car. As I strapped him in, I began rehearsing what I’d text my wife about what was going on. By this time, he was still crying, his sobs had not abated for 30 minutes. I began to text my wife about how hard the morning had been, a sure sign that I had fallen down. Hard.
And Getting Back Up
But then I realized why I was angry and overwhelmed. I was feeling inadequate and not good enough, and that my needs weren’t important. I took a few deep breaths as I put down my phone, put the car in drive, and pulled away. His crying continued. 35 minutes.
And then something happened.
As I found a way to get back up, to wrestle with my own feelings and to understand what was happening for me, I noticed that I was able to turn back toward my son.
I started to reach out with my feelings to try to find him. To understand. To reconnect.
And that’s when I knew that his reactions weren’t about my turning off the TV at all. “Buddy,” I said softly, looking at him in the rear view mirror, “are you sad because Mommy left this morning?”
He nodded, still sobbing. “Oh honey,” I sighed, “I know. It’s so hard when Mommy leaves, isn’t it? It’s so hard when she goes. You miss her so much, don’t you?” He nodded again.
I took a hand off the steering wheel and grabbed his, gently squeezing it. He took my hand in his. “You had loved so much spending so much time with her during the break, hadn’t you? It must have been so hard for her to leave this morning.”
He nodded again. His heaving sobs softened, quieted. After a few moments of this, he stopped crying. I continued to hold his hand while driving to the barber shop. We had found each other again.
Our Need for Connection
In relationships, we have the potential to become and be our best selves. We are better together. We can feel seen, known, understood, and loved, even in our most painful feelings. These are universal human needs that can only be fulfilled in caring relationships.
Also universal to the human experience is falling down. When we fall down, we become disconnected from ourselves and flooded, controlled by our pain. When this happens, finding a way back to connection, to trusting and being vulnerable, is challenging and can feel impossible.
But just as my son did, we need help with our pain. We need those closest to us to understand us, to comfort us, to know our needs and respond with care and empathy. This is the essence of how we grow.
Whatever is going on in your life, perhaps you might simply notice your own feelings and reactions as you’ve read my story. What came up for you? Take some time to hold that, to honor it, to wrestle with it if need be. If you’d like, what could you share with someone in your life?
And, as always, if you feel like you keep falling down and can’t find a way to get back up, I’m here.
Live near Ventura, Camarillo, or Oxnard, CA?
I’d love to connect.
Contact me today to get started.