Completing the Stress Cycle

Maybe it is because lately it seems like my life has suddenly sped up, filled up, and is forcing me to level up, but I resonated deeply with a melting down toddler this afternoon.

She was perched on her mother’s shoulders, on top of the world. She kept saying, “I’m tall” and “I’m high; I can reach the ceiling!” It was charming for a while, but then she started to squirm and squiggle, using her Mom’s face and hair to reposition herself.

It was time to come down.

But she “just didn’t want to.” Yep, I get that. When I’m on top of the world, I just don’t want to come down, either. But all good things do come to an end. When she declined to come down, her mother told her she would help her down. I let her know it was coming at the count of 3*, and we counted down together, and then down she came…along with her mood. She wasn’t having it. She asked to go back up. She demanded it. She tried to do it herself. She cried, she raged. She asked for a hug, then rejected it. She tried again. She got down and tried to climb up her Mom’s back. She eventually ran to her Dad, who helped her wipe her nose, and gradually, gradually, she recovered.

*Not that she had until the count of 3 to do it herself, no the choice had been made…the countdown was just to let her know that it was coming. We had talked around this limit for several minutes, so I wanted to find a way to distinguish this “Mom’s going to do it” from the other times that we had tried that phrase. Generally, I don’t recommend a countdown before enforcing a limit, but in this case, it was a signal that we were going through with it.

It was a hard couple of minutes…and I wasn’t even there in person; I know it was 10x harder for Mom, child, and Dad. But it was an important couple of minutes. First: it is so important to set boundaries around your own safety and comfort. You are the partner in your relationship with your child, and your comfort matters! If you’re uncomfortable and possibly injured or hurt from something your child is doing, it’s more than fine to say “this is uncomfortable for me and I need it to stop” … then stop it. Protecting yourself is protecting your child in the long run. They are learning how to safely be with others…and that they should advocate for their own safety.

Secondly, the tantrum, the tears themselves…so, so important. This child was disappointed and angry. Just like Mom had every right to remove her daughter from that precarious and uncomfortable position, her daughter had every right to be upset that her fun activity was ended. We can’t hurry through those feelings. We can’t talk ourselves (or others) out of them. Instead, we have to just let them pass. We have to feel the feelings. I’ve been talking about this for a couple of weeks now, but I just got another angle on the same topic.

Turns out, when we let those feelings completely come out, when we ‘complete the stress cycle,’ we actually feel better. When we don’t complete the cycle, we get stuck, we may experience burnout. And yes, I’m talking about us as adults…but when we constantly fix, cajole, and distract children from expressing their feelings, they are left with those…well, FEELINGS in their bodies…they, too, can get stuck…be stressed.

But let’s talk about emotions (well, let’s ‘listen’ in on the very excellent discussion Brené Brown had with the authors of a very excellent book on Burnout): “emotions are cycles that happen in your body. They are neurological events, and when I say neurological, I mean not just happening in your brain but your whole nervous system, the intelligence of your body extends to your nervous system from the top of your head to the tip of your toes and also beyond your skin. Emotions are an involuntary neurological response. They have a beginning, a middle and an end.” And you have to go all the way through them, like a tunnel, to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. You can’t just fix the problem, the issue…remove the stressor…the stress remains. You have to feel the feelings, then discharge the stress.

How do you discharge the stress after the feeling has passed? How do you complete the cycle?

  • Physical activity – from walking to running to just tensing and releasing your body
  • Breathing – deep slow breathing to down regulate your nervous system
  • Positive social interaction – connection with others tells your body you are safe
  • Laughter – giddy, uncontrolled laughter (not coerced or forced)
  • Affection – again, this connection tells your body you are safe
  • Crying – mhmm, like toddlers do to let go of the feeling
  • Creative expression – “take your broken heart and make art” (Carrie Fisher)

As I watched this toddler as her meltdown, well, melted, I realized she was very naturally employing some of those strategies…she cried of course, but then she ran around the room, she connected with her father, she certainly took big breaths as her tears abated, she got a cuddle. After she was recovered, her Mom engaged in a little creative expression with her, as she ‘told the story’ of what happened…and she finished the story herself! Her parents didn’t try to rush her through the feelings. They stayed with her…through the beginning, the middle, and the end of that cycle.

If you’re feeling burned out (emotionally exhausted, decreased sense of accomplishment, depersonalization (depletion of empathy, caring and compassion), give yourself the gift of any of these strategies after a particularly hard day or interaction. See if it helps. And if you need some positive social interaction, I’m here for you.

71. Have Confidence

The confident parent
is not the one who knows
how to parent in every situation.
The confident parent
is the one who knows
that knowledge will emerge
in the midst of the situation.

This parent’s mind
is free of complications,
ready to respond
without preconceptions.
This parent will always act rightly.


My confidence in the future
for my children and for me,
exists because I know
we are all part of the Tao.
Come good and bad,
life and death,
that will always be true.
Somehow I will know,
when the time comes,
exactly what to do.