We’ve all been there. Obligations at work and with our kids have stacked up alongside the piles of unsorted mail and dirty laundry. Too much stress and too little sleep have us running on fumes. We feel like we could snap at any minute—and maybe we do from time to time.
Although mommy meltdowns are common, they don’t look the same for every woman, says Brandi Davis, ACC, a certified parenting coach in Philadelphia. “For some, it’s sitting in the middle of the chaos, crying,” she says. “For others, it’s screaming and yelling at their family. It’s when a mom gets to her breaking point and feels like she has no energy, strategies or resources left.”
“For other people, [a meltdown] shows up much more quietly,” says Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach and mom of three based in Washington, D.C. “You could be drinking too much. Also, [other symptoms include]food abuse, internet-shopping abuse, checking out on social media and filling up your life with more, more, more—more activities, more meetings, more stuff.”
Despite different manifestations from mother to mother, mommy meltdowns do share some common causes. Lack of energy is one, says Davis. And lack of support—from a spouse or partner, at work, or because extended family don’t live nearby—is another theme Leahy hears from clients, as is the common “do-it-all” attitude many women exhibit. “I find a strong correlation between ‘I got this; I can do this; I don’t need any help,’ to an eventual meltdown,” Leahy says.
Are you moments from a meltdown? Here are a few signs—and tips to help you get back on track:
You’re pulling away from your spouse/partner.
Withdrawal is a common sign of an impending meltdown. It’s often caused by resentment toward a significant other when we feel overloaded or unsupported. Left alone and unchecked, this resentment can simmer until it boils over.
Instead of retreating, engage your partner. “Ask for help,” says Davis. “Be honest about where you are. Your spouse may not even know why you’re pulling away.”
You’re giving in to your kids.
If your kids want junk food for breakfast or don’t want to brush their teeth, and you say okay because you just don’t have the energy to fight, take that as a warning sign.
“End the negotiations with your kids,” Davis says. “Be clear about your expectations, and end the conversation quickly. Say, ‘You can have cereal or toast, but you are not having cookies for breakfast. I will not talk about that right now, but we can talk about something else.’”
You’re saying “yes” to everyone—except yourself.
Leahy finds a link between meltdowns and clients who can’t say “no.” “But,” she says, “they say ‘no’ to themselves constantly. I’ll ask, ‘Are you working out? Do you eat well?’ And they’ll say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ Everything gets added to the plate, and nothing comes off.”
Neglecting your needs and running yourself ragged aren’t doing anyone any favors. Turn off the TV, and go to bed earlier. Take that yoga class you love. Hire a babysitter, and go to dinner with your spouse.
Davis sees this as a teachable opportunity: “You need to model this for kids and show them there are times you need to do for you and take care of yourself.”
Your family or work life has changed.
If your spouse is working extra hours, you may feel unsupported. If you’re the one with more to do at work, you may feel guilty about letting things slide at home. Even happy changes, like a move to a new home or the birth of a new baby, are overwhelming.
To cope, find resources to help carry the load, and give yourself permission to do a little less. Ask kids to pitch in more, suggests Davis. “Even 2-year-olds can help,” she says. “If you’ve ever visited a daycare, you’ll see very little kids cleaning up, pushing in their chairs, taking their dirty napkins to the trash.”
You’re being snippy or overly emotional.
If you find yourself being short with your family or getting upset at things that don’t normally bother you, or if the level of upset seems disproportionate (like, say, literally crying over spilled milk), take a step back to assess.
“Ask yourself, ‘Why am I feeling this way?’” Davis says. “Who are your resources who can help, like a babysitter or family member? Tell kids you need a few minutes to yourself to calm down.”
Leahy is a big fan of writing to work through tough feelings. “When I’ve been triggered to a meltdown myself,” she says, “I will sit down and write what was leading up to it: I hadn’t slept well all week; I had too many clients; I said ‘yes’ to too many things. I’ll write it down so it can register in my brain. The brain loves to make sense of things.”
But if you’re melting down on the regular, Leahy recommends visiting a therapist. “People may or may not be noticing, but you feel on the brink more than you don’t,” she says. She uses the analogy of a duck in water: “You look calm above the surface, but your feet are going bananas underneath.”
Therapy, Leahy says, can help identify your priorities and family values and get you “unstuck” from constant meltdown mode. “There are many normal meltdowns of overwhelm, and then there are big meltdowns,” she says. “Look for the patterns. Get all your courage to get help. Think about how you want to feel, and make your life go around that.”