Morning Meltdowns – Asserting Our Boundaries with Connection and Confidence

A parent writes that her 4-year-old daughter begins each morning by screaming and wailing, and the routine has worn this mom down. “It gets right under my skin,” she admits, “and makes me want to run away.” While she does acknowledge her daughter’s emotions in these moments and tries to understand and be patient, she has to get ready for work and sometimes ends up yelling or crying herself. This mom wants to know: “Just how long should I spend offering comfort before I make good on my plan to take care of my needs?”

Transcript of “Morning Meltdowns – Asserting Our Boundaries with Connection and Confidence”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question from a parent and what I found very interesting about this is she brings up several ideas that are commonly misunderstood in terms of my advice. Ostensibly, her concern is about her daughter struggling in the mornings, melting down and not giving her mother a chance to take care of her own needs without calling and calling for her, even though her father is there to help at those times. But the terms I want to discuss here are attachment, connection, comfort, and then overall boundaries.

All right, let’s start with the email I received:

Dear Janet, for years, your podcast has been relatable and reassuring. As kiddo S nears age four though, I’m finding fewer resources that address our situation. And between preschool and pediatrician visits, S checks out as developmentally typical.

One problem is that she starts nearly every day screaming and wailing. It seems attachment-related. She’ll sometimes walk into our bed and snuggle happily for a bit, but our routine is that I, mama, do the bedtime routine, and dad does the morning routine. So when I get up, S starts screaming for me. She and her dad are super close and he’s there to comfort her, but she’ll just scream, ‘MommEEE, MommEEE!’ over and over. She usually calls me mama or mommy, so this mommeee thing only happens when she’s melted down and it gets right under my skin and makes me want to run away, which is probably what it feels to her like I’m doing.

I say calmly that I need to take care of myself and that daddy is there. Sometimes he’s away for work and I give her the choice of coming with me while I pee and brush teeth or staying in her room or ask if she’d like me to get her ready first. The answer is always a screaming no, but I don’t stick around. I go brush my teeth, et cetera. And sometimes I show my exasperation.

When it comes time to get out of bed and she’s flopping around, kicking the bed, grabbing at me and screaming, sometimes I’ve broken down myself and yelled or even cried. It just wears me down to start every day like this, especially when we don’t have much time together before work. There are plenty of other things that induce ear-splitting screams these days. And when her dad is around, I’m more likely to try to escape within the house. So I don’t know if that’s challenging her security, but I don’t leave the house. We don’t have locks on doors and we’ve never put her in time out. So I don’t really understand where that desperation is coming from, except that it’s clear she is completely out of control and beyond reasoning within those moments.

You talk about connecting first and validating while holding boundaries, but at what point do you accept that that isn’t working and hold the boundary? For example, I wake up needing to pee and I have to get ready for work. How long should I spend offering comfort before I make good on my plan to take care of my needs?

All right. First, I want to talk about what is likely going on with this four-year-old. It’s very common actually for a child to have difficulty in transitions. I talk a lot about that. Transitions are big SOS times for young children commonly. It’s hard for them to pass from point A to point B. And the hardest transition of the day, the most common one for children to struggle with is the bedtime transition because they’re tired, we’re tired. We want it to go smoothly. We want it to be a nice sendoff so we can feel good about our relationship and that our child is a happy child and all those things. We need to feel content ourselves and have a nice sleep.

The second hardest one is the morning transition, because that’s also a time that’s a difficult physical transition. We’re in dreamland, we’re in a resting state. We have to kind of pull ourselves all together and get ourselves up to face the day. Our blood pressure’s lowered. We feel slow and sluggish. Some people jump right out of bed. They’re in a great mood. One of my children used to do that, but a lot of other children and adults like me don’t feel at our best in the morning. It’s a tough transition to leave that comfortable state and be in an awake state, particularly when we have challenges to face.

I actually wrote back to this parent asking her a couple of quick questions so that I could get a little more information before I did this podcast. And one of the questions was: are her family or their daughter experiencing transitions right now? And as it turns out, the parent got back to me and said:

“Yes, we moved to a new state in July, which S adapted to exuberantly. But on the same day I started a new job, my partner started traveling for work part-time. So I’m solo parenting sometimes. And S started her first official preschool after mostly being with us and a tiny in-home daycare during the pandemic.”

So she’s starting a preschool where there are more challenges than the place she was used to. It’s more of a school situation instead of a tiny in-home daycare. I imagine there are more children. And even if it wasn’t a more challenging situation on its face, it’s a new situation. So yeah, she’s in a transition here. She’s got to get up, she’s got to face the day, go to school. That doesn’t mean that she’s not having a great time at school. In fact, her mother said right at the beginning that between preschool and pediatrician visits, that her daughter checks out as developmentally typical. So she must be doing fine at school. But she’s got to rise up to that occasion. And it’s just a lot for certain temperaments and certain types of people. And this girl sounds like that intense, sensitive in those ways kind of person. So she’s getting lost in this feeling.

And then her mother wants to have a very reasonable boundary that the father’s going to take over in the mornings and the mother’s going to get herself ready for her day and have that time. Those are great boundaries to set, but we can’t expect ever that this boundary or any boundary is going to be met with, “Okay, fine,” by a child, especially an intense child like this, who does not seem to be a morning person, at least not at this time with all the changes that have been happening. This is when her feelings are overwhelming her.

So the parent’s needs are in conflict with the child’s wants, which is to hold on to her mother and be able to vent all these feelings with her mother too, probably. But her mother needs that time away, and that’s absolutely reasonable and healthy. And it’s what I would recommend to this parent — that she do that, because that’s the basic need for the parent: to have a couple of minutes in the morning to get herself together. But her daughter is not going to accept that easily. And she’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to do, which is vent all her overwhelmed feelings, using this opportunity to vent them all. Maybe even holding onto them a bit longer because her mother isn’t being clear and clean with her boundary. She senses her mother is trying to placate her, that her mother is exasperated, annoyed, that it’s getting to her. Her mother isn’t showing that she’s comfortable separating with a child that’s not saying, “Okay, sure, I’m fine with that. Go enjoy getting ready.”

I would encourage this parent and any parent to expect and normalize, if not melting down over this in the morning, maybe it’ll be something else. And this is a very common issue — this difficult morning thing. I’ll just read a quick note from another parent with the same issue.

I’m having big problems with my two-and-a-half-year-old son. In brief, the mornings are utter hell. Every single morning he wakes early and screams until we get him up. He’s done this his whole life, literally from day one. Now he can talk. He demands one parent or the other, and then it’s just a good hour of demanding everything and total meltdown if he doesn’t get his way. He wants to be in the kitchen or watching TV or eating cereals still in his PJs, not in his PJs, et cetera. The list goes on, it’s such a horrendous way to start the day for everybody and we’re at a breaking point. We’d love your help.

So to both parents: decide what you’re going to allow your children to do, understand that they’re probably going to have a meltdown no matter what, that there’s really no getting around it. That if they’re expressing this, it’s the healthiest thing for them to do and something they need to clear to be able to be that person they need to be to do their day.

A lot of children struggle with this and we can get caught up in trying to please them and then nothing works. And then now we’re resentful and we’re annoyed because we don’t want our child to be upset, but our child’s getting upset anyway.

So reframe this, normalize that your child has tough mornings, at least right now at this time of life, it’s something they’re going through. It’s okay if we see it as okay.

And then we can do all the things that this first mother wants to do: feel connected.

I’m going to talk about comfort because comfort doesn’t come directly into these kinds of boundaries where we’re trying to separate. We can’t comfort our child while we’re separating. What gives them comfort is that we’re clear, we’re confident, we accept that they feel however they feel, and that we see it as healthy and okay and acceptable for them to be in floods of tears in the morning. I really feel for this parent when she says, “Especially when we don’t have much time together before work.” Yeah, we just want it to be nice. We want it to be smooth. We want our own positive sendoff for our day. If we could reframe comfort and connection, then maybe we could see this as positive and we could feel better about it.

The first thing that caught my attention in this note was that the parent said the problem is she starts nearly every day screaming and wailing. “It seems attachment-related”. Whoa. So that’s a big, scary way for a parent to see this, that it’s attachment-related. We all know how important secure attachment is and that it’s our job to develop that for our child. But secure attachment is actually not this fragile delicate thing.

Bethany Saltman was a guest on my podcast and she’s done extensive research into the science of attachment. She has a book called Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment. She was concerned for herself that she wasn’t maybe securely attached to her parent, and therefore she wasn’t raising a securely attached child. She found at the end of this fascinating journey that yes, she was. That she was attached and she was promoting that with her child and that it really was not that complicated.

So it’s not about that I want to be separate from you in the morning to take care of myself. That is not about developing an insecure attachment. That has nothing to do with it.

But what can get in the way is if we feel annoyed and resentful consistently with our child, that we’re not delighting in them. Obviously, this parent is sometimes and she’s giving me the difficult times here to work on. But this can start to seep into the way we feel about our child. And really it’s on us.

Not to say it’s anyone’s fault, because I understand both where the child is coming from and where the parent is coming from here. But it’s on us to normalize for ourselves our child feelings, even if they’re about the choices that we make, or especially if they are, and to feel confident in what we’re doing taking that time to be alone.

I wouldn’t even have her daughter hanging out with her while she’s getting ready. She said, when the father’s not there, sometimes she offers her daughter the choice to hang out with her. I would even then take my time, close the door and say, “This is what I’m doing now. You can bang on the door and you can yell at me and you can be really, really mad. I’m going to do this because this is what I need.” It’s great modeling for our child about boundaries, letting them know that sometimes other people’s wants come above theirs.

And most importantly, it’s teaching her it’s really okay to feel this. It’s really okay to fall apart and just feel like nothing’s working… and then this incredible thing… I actually have to share this, because when I asked her these couple more questions, one of the things she said when she wrote back to me is:

“This morning, I wrote to you from the basement crying with noise-canceling headphones on after leaving my miserable child with her loving dad and thinking, ‘We can’t go on like this.’ Minutes later, the two of them bound down the stairs, hand in hand, grinning. Kiddo fully dressed and happy and without any apparent resentment or damage from this daily misery.”

So yes. Because her daughter knew she needed to do that. She sensed that was what she needed. They clear those feelings and they turn on a dime and they’re happy and they don’t have the resentment, but the problem is we can hold on to it. And that’s just poison in our relationship that we don’t want and we really can eliminate by changing our expectations a little here and normalizing that mornings are hard, transitions are hard, especially when you have all these other transitions going on in your life, these bigger ones. Moving houses. Yeah, she may have been on a high about that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still challenging and an off-balance kind of feeling in some ways. And the new school, especially, changes in schedules, yeah.

I want to get into a little bit about connection because this mother says, “You talk about connecting first and validating while holding boundaries, but at what point do you accept that isn’t working and hold the boundary?”

I’m going to describe what I believe connecting really is, and also what works best for us and for our child. Connecting is the way we are direct, clear, honest in expressing our boundary to our child. So we’re showing them us and our needs, and then we’re seeing them as maybe being in conflict with those needs, not liking that we said that and that we have this boundary. We’re accepting however they feel about that and allowing them to express it for as long as they need to in whatever safe way they can while we follow through with our boundary, which means in this case, we are leaving, leaving her to be with her dad, “while I go do this.” That’s what the boundary is.

I can’t set that boundary if I’m going to stay here and wait for you to be okay with it. That’s not setting a boundary.

So connection is that honesty and that directness. And then the acceptance, on the other side, of whatever our child feels. That we’re not trying to make them feel a different way about this. That we are okay. In fact, we want them to share the way they actually feel in that moment, even if it doesn’t make us feel as good as if they agreed to what we asked or the boundary that we set. That’s a real connection.

And that’s also why you don’t hear me sharing to make a game out of gaining cooperation from our child or setting a boundary. That isn’t to say that I think it’s harmful or wrong for a parent to do that. To me though, it’s not a genuine connection. It’s: Let’s do this flashy thing so that you’ll be okay with this. It’s more of an avoidance than an actual connection.

I’m a very playful, silly person, and I think that genuine silliness and playfulness can come when we’ve gotten to that point where we understand that our child maybe needs to blow up at us or around us and that blowing up is going to sound like mommy, mommy, mommy, and all the annoying sounds in the book. That’s going to be part of it, especially for a child who’s four years old and has words.

It’s okay to want to avoid connecting with that. That makes sense, but that’s what it is to me. When we have our expectations in order and we’ve normalized this, then from there, we can have genuine fun with it maybe. “Oh, where’s your dad. Let’s get our magnifying glasses and try to find him. I don’t know, maybe he’s hiding in the closet. We’ve got to find him because I’ve got to go do my thing.” So we can be silly when we’re unafraid. When we’re clear. When we understand what boundaries feel like, which is often I’m clear and direct and you’re unhappy about it. That’s what setting a boundary is a lot of the time with children.

And then comfort, again, is the comfort that my mom means what she says is, that she’s okay with my feelings. It’s not the same as I’m going to sit here with you and hug you and hold you and inside myself, get more annoyed, feeling trapped.

This mother talks about wanting to run away from her daughter in the house. I totally understand that, but consider the power that you’re giving to a four-year-old girl. Like I said, I’ve been there. But that we would have to try to run away from our child because we’re so uncomfortable and annoyed and afraid, that doesn’t help us. That doesn’t make us feel good about her or about ourselves.

And none of this means…  Even though you hear me saying, “Face the music. It’s okay. Expect this,” that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that we can do to make it smoother. I’m going to talk a little about that, but with the caveat that it may not work because maybe she, again, really needs to cry and melt down so she can go off happily smiling with her dad and have a great day.

One thing you could do is consider talking to her the day before, maybe this parent has done this, about, “Okay, we have this hard time in the morning sometimes where you want me and it’s your dad’s time to be with you and your time to be with your dad and for him to help you get up and take care of your needs. And you want me. It seems like you’re really having a hard time, really uncomfortable. What can we do to make that better for you? What could we do to make that easier?”

One thing might be that there’s a special snack that she likes in her room because she might be a little hungry or blood sugar might be a little low. Something safe and good for her that you don’t mind having. Give her some options or let her explore that with you — what might help.

And then I would be very clear with the step-by-step of what you’re going to do. I’d be clear right there that, “You can yell at me and be really mad at me and you can pound on the door and call me mommy, mommy. You can do all that stuff. I’m still going to love you, but I’m still going to do my thing.”

That’s helping to set it up for her and for yourself. It’s almost like you’ll be following a script there. And that helps you to get in the groove and her to get in the groove a little bit easier and it may make it all lift quicker. Who knows? It may not, but it may, and it’ll feel good to you to be facing all these truths.

That’s another thing about connection. It’s facing the truths. It’s being brave in that way. A real connection. Imagine that with a little child.

And I can hear people asking, “Well, authentic connection… Does that mean I tell her I’m annoyed and it’s upsetting me and I don’t like it?” Again, that’s the part that we can fix, or at least we can work on. It’s not her responsibility to keep us from being annoyed. It’s our ability to frame the situation for ourselves in a way that’s reasonable and know that what she’s doing is normal.

The sounds will still grate on us for sure. The whiny sounds or the screaming our name, but not as much as if we’re feeling as this parent has, which it sounds like is very responsible, unsure, worried about attachment, worried about connection, worried about comfort. That’s what amplifies the annoyance factor in our children’s behavior. It makes us worry. It makes us feel wrong. It makes us doubt ourselves. And we just want to have a nice morning.

Free yourself of those feelings that are getting in your way and remember what you saw there. Your child with her loving dad, the two of them, father and daughter, bounding down the stairs, hand in hand, grinning. Fully dressed, happy, no resentment, no damage from this daily misery.

It’s not misery for her. It’s catharsis. It’s clearing something so I can get on with my day.

I really hope some of this helps. Thank you to this parent and all the parents who reach out to me with your stories. I see so much of myself in your children and in you, and these are great reminders for me. Thank you. And thank you so much for listening.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

9 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. If the father is not home do you suggest the mom close the door? If the child is outside pounding on the door, yelling and crying does mom talk to her through the door? If so, what would be some phrases to use?

    1. Yes, I suggest that the mother of this 4-year-old let her daughter know exactly what she’ll be doing and that she is welcome to be angry about it. Then I would probably not feel the need to try to speak through the door. When I opened the door, I would fully acknowledge and empathize (but. not in a pitying manner). “Wow, you are so worked up today, my love! You didn’t want me to shut the door on you.” Not trying to console, but instead encouraging her right to feel what she feels.

  2. Hi Janet. Another incredibly inspiring podcast 🙂 when I listen to you I so often get this “wow, why did I never think of this” feeling. Or the smug “just what I always thought”.
    This article is obviolusly not about playfulness but you touch it. I think it does have its place, but only when the child is in a good place and the caregiver too, and the child just is not really into what the caregiver wants. In that case playfulness is the perfect thing in my opinion. do you agree? Did I understand correctly?
    On one aspect of this I do have a slightly different idea on one thing, and I truly hope you don’t find it presumptuous to write this here. My idea is not just a feeling, but an opinion I formed when reading about attachment theory and parenting. About the separation: it is my opinion that to support emotion somebody has to be there, at least in the same room and acknowledging the child. Not the person the child is asking for necessarily, but somebody the child is attached to. I know, sometimes it is necessary to lock a door, and I have done it when I was alone with more than one kid. But it is not supporting emotion, only somehow surviving the moment. It makes the child feel abandoned. What I have read and experienced it is totally possible to support the emotion beforehand or later, but it needs to be supported and the experience of being locked out will have to be processed too. This is just my opinion of cours and I am not trying to criticize or hate or anything, and I really hope this does not come over the wrong way!
    Thank you so much for all the inspiration you are giving me! I learned so much from you.

    1. Thank you for such thoughtful comments, Martina! Let me see if I can address your questions… “when the child is in a good place and the caregiver too, and the child just is not really into what the caregiver wants. In that case playfulness is the perfect thing in my opinion.”

      I respectfully disagree with that opinion. I don’t believe in using play to coerce a child. In my opinion, play should never be “used” and always be only for the sake of play. Play is very precious to me and I personally could not imagine using it to even subtly manipulate a situation. Also, there are many parents who do not find those kinds of techniques like, “let’s hop like bunnies to your bedroom!” natural. These parents feel pressured by the playful parenting advocates to come up with a game when they are already getting annoyed with their child. To me, that’s totally inauthentic and unnecessary and, I’d even say, a negative experience for both the parent and the child. It encourages parents to try to avoid their child’s feelings, rather than to normalize and accept them. Children deserve our directness and honesty and to be given the freedom to express their displeasure. Play should about fun and genuine connection, not a mask we wear.

      So apparently I have some very strong feelings about playful parenting! 🙂 Hope you don’t mind!

      1. As to your second question/ point of discussion… Secure attachment is about genuine connection, honesty, responsive care. It’s definitely not about being physically available to our child every time they are upset. We do not threaten attachment by asserting our reasonable boundaries, in fact, we foster it. We DO threaten attachment by taking a co-dependent approach, feeling bound to our child whenever they express displeasure. That’s the feeling of being captive that the parent in the podcast expresses. She wants to run away from her 4-year-old! because she worries that her child will feel abandoned by the most reasonable separation. That dynamic is not healthy for parent or child. Children are aware people who understand our communication and need the right to disagree, strongly, with our choices. They understand completely the difference between separation and abandonment and have since they were infants.

      2. Wow, that makes total sense! That‘s so true that it sometimes seems inauthentic. It has happened though that I feel it‘s more fun for me too to do something that has to be done anyway in a playful way with the child, but in that case play is not a „parenting tool“, thank you for that perspective!

        1. I love your open mind, Martina! Please know that I may be one of the few with these views. Me, Magda Gerber, and a few others. 🙂

  3. Janet you are a treasure. This is such thoughtful and helpful response to the parent in question, but I know it will help us all. Thank you for all you do.

    1. Thank you so much, Hayley! I really needed that boost today x Janet

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