Family Therapy: Prevent a Parenting Crash

Carl Grody

If you ever need a Jenga partner, I might be your guy.

I’m not professional level (is there a professional Jenga league?), but I’ve played endless games with clients over the years. It keeps kids (and their parents) engaged while we talk, and everyone asks questions on their turn rather than me guiding the conversation all the time.

But those aren’t the only reasons we play the game. It’s also a perfect metaphor for what happens when stress builds up in our lives.

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If you’ve never played Jenga, here’s the gist. Small wooden rectangles are stacked in rows of three, each level perpendicular to the last, in a tower about a foot tall. Players try to pull out one piece at a time without making the tower collapse. That’s easy to do early in the game, but it’s trickier when more blocks are missing. Eventually, you’re left with a wobbling stack that might fall if you flinch.

Our lives are like that, too. It’s easier to be resilient when we only have a stressor or two—say a bad day at work for Mom or Dad, or a pop quiz for the kids. The structure of our life is still solid, and we bounce back the next day ready to take on the world.

But if we chip away at that supporting structure—say, somebody gets the flu, or one of the kids goes to summer school, or there’s a huge family stressor like a divorce—suddenly our lives feel much less secure. You find yourself saying, “If something else goes wrong, I’ll scream.”

And then you start screaming.

I’m not a fan of yelling at kids, but I also think it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to be perfect. When you reach your boiling point, anyone can have a bad moment.

This comes up in sessions a lot, too. Parents hang their heads and confess, “I totally lost it last week. We were running around all day, and dinner was one argument after another. I just snapped. I yelled at everyone: the kids, the husband/wife, even the dog. I’ve felt awful ever since.”

I don’t scold them, of course. Instead, I point at the Jenga tower sitting on my desk and remind them that we all reach a point where our wobbling tower crashes to the ground.

There are two keys to making sure your tower doesn’t collapse. First, you need to recognize that a crash is coming. As I wrote in the last issue, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a busy schedule. But even without a full calendar, stress sneaks up on you. That’s because you use coping skills without thinking about it. You get used to dealing with everyday stresses as they happen, so you don’t notice how overwhelmed you are. (This happens to the kids, too; keep that in mind when they lose control “out of nowhere.” They didn’t see it coming, either.)

Second, you need to take care of yourself. Good parents often try to be everything to everybody, even when it means they don’t have time for themselves. But good parenting doesn’t happen from a wobbly base. You need to take care of yourself or you can’t be the best parent, partner or person that you want to be.

Talk to your partner and work out a schedule in which you both take care of yourselves as well as spend time with each other. If you’re a single parent, take advantage of relatives or friends willing to spend time with the kids. You don’t have to be gone for hours; you just need time to go to the gym, read a book, take a walk or even hide in the basement.

It also helps to occasionally play Jenga with the family. It’s a good reminder of what happens when you don’t keep your tower steady.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.