Do You Need A Break?

Over the last few days, I've seen a number of local news stories about young children drowning in the bathtub. This news is heartbreaking, just awful. While we all know that the blame for these tragic deaths lies with the parents, simply wagging our fingers over that and moving on with our lives isn't particularly helpful.

Raising a young child can be a lot of stressful work, of course. The earliest years of child-rearing involve some level of sleep deprivation, and as much as we all look back on that period fondly, the simple fact of the matter is that sleep deprivation impairs cognitive function every bit as much as drinking does. Under some conditions, it impairs cognition even more than drinking.

When you combine that level of sleep deprivation with the stressors that come with child-rearing -- crying, pleading voices that demand our constant attention, competing priorities at work, housework responsibilities piling up at home, emotional obligations to our partner and to our other family members, and even mental health obligations to ourselves -- it makes for an enormous mental and emotional burden to carry. The right set of circumstances can set any parent in that condition off on a series of bad judgments.

The news is replete with the very worst examples of those bad judgments, and small children who die while taking baths is only one example. We've all seen the news stories about the strange accidental, and not-accidental, deaths of children caused by parents who somehow, inexplicably reached the edge of what they were prepared to tolerate and it simply broke their ability to cope. I don't mean to excuse it or to minimize these parents' moral culpability. Still, it's important to understand how such things happen, and if you want a hint of understanding, take a look at the stress that can sometimes arise when rearing small children.

Of course, these crimes are at the far end of the spectrum of parental failure. Most parental failure is much less harmful and certainly non-criminal. But that doesn't mean that any parent who has never committed a criminal act has never responded to parental stress in a way that caused their children emotional or physical harm.

Every parent has probably responded to their child more harshly than circumstances required on at least one occasion. Every parent has paid inadequate attention to their child from time to time. Every parent has had to take a phone call despite their child being in a vulnerable position of some kind. We're only human. Parents often make mistakes. Thankfully, most of these mistakes are minor and easily corrected. But we do make mistakes.

So, when we combine sleep deprivation and stress with a human tendency to make occasional mistakes, it all adds up to a situation in which children can be harmed despite parents' best intentions. Children can be unfairly yelled at, blamed, or punished; they can be wrongfully ignored or left alone for a few too many minutes, they can be left to too much screen time or exposed to scary images in books or on TV. Bad things can and do happen when parents are pushed to the edge of what they can tolerate.

For all of these reasons, it is vitally important for parents and other caretakers to make regular use of the following phrases:
  • Do you need a break?
  • Do you want to take five minutes while I finish up here?
  • Should you go calm yourself down while I take over?
  • Is it my turn to do this tonight?
  • Should we plan a date night this week?
  • Should you plan a night out with your friends or alone this week?

In my experience, it doesn't take very much time or effort for a parent to simmer-down when they're feeling stressed out. Usually a five or ten minute break is all a person needs to reset their emotions, catch their breath, regain their patience and their composure, and return to the child in a calmer and more productive state of mind. And, yes, it's that parent's responsibility to take that time when it's available.

But it's the other partner's responsibility to learn to recognize when those offers are needed, and to make them. It's the other partner's responsibility to recognize when parent and child are not communicating well anymore and a third person needs to step in. It's the other partner's responsibility to be there for both the parent and the child when things start to wind up tightly.

It also goes without saying that, for single parents, this third person doesn't have to be a partner. It could be a grandparent or a sibling, a good friend, etc. Whoever exists within the child's emotional support network, who lives close enough to make a difference, ought to be involved in stepping in to offer help, even just five or ten minutes, when it's needed.

This is a vitally important, and too often neglected, ingredient to child-rearing.

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