I’m the adult: not burdening children with responsibility for fixing our black moods

I’m so angry, I’m vibrating. You know that feeling? When you’re not sure if it’s the world around you that’s shaking or your innards? I’m so angry, I want to scream, stomp, feel my fist crash into something hard and preferably breakable…

Instead, I get into the car with all three of my kids. Safe, eh?

Close my eyes. Take a deep breath. Sternly tell myself: “Thy truck is not a weapon and you will not feel better if you mow down an unfortunate pedestrian.” Take another deep breath. Try to get the world to stop shaking.


Grip the steering wheel. Start driving.

The two little redheads in the backseat are oblivious of my mood. They’re talking to each other, over each other. Excited about where we’re going.

The older, messy-haired blonde in the front seat beside me… he picks up on every nuance. And he starts to talk to me, frenetically. About the Redwood Forest. The new Redwood biome in Minecraft about which he’s so excited. He offers story after story, asks question after question, trying to lure me out of my anger, hate, blackness.

I don’t realize what he’s doing, not right away. I answer monosyllabically, barely hearing him through my anger. And then, suddenly, something he says—or maybe the way he says, the pitch of his voice—breaks through the fog, the blackness, and I stare at him in horror.

He’s trying to fix me.

He’s trying to make me feel better.

He’s taking responsibility for making my black mood go away.

…and here you might think, Jane, what the hell? Why the horror? Why is this a bad thing? Oh, it is. Hold on. Read on.

“My beautiful boy,” I say, and I reach for his hand, and squeeze it. “I appreciate… I very much appreciate what you are trying to do. But it’s my bad mood. And I’m the only one who can get me out of it. Don’t—don’t take it on yourself.”

He frowns, doesn’t understand.

But it doesn’t matter. Me realizing what he was doing—enough. I grit my teeth one final time. Take one—two–three–more breaths. Wish I could close my eyes, but there’s a semi to the right of me and a cement truck to the left, so I just shake my head side to side.

I’m not happy, not tranquil or joyous. But. I am sane. The black fog of anger recedes.

At this precise moment, the two redheads in the backseat—oblivious to everything but their own interaction and joy—start up a chorus of:

Ender: Fox in box. Fox in box. Fox in box.

Flora: Moist. Moist. Moist. Moist.

…because they know just how to push my buttons. But, I’m sane again, so I just yell at them in the usual Mom way—not the psycho bitch from hell who will devour you alive if you say one more word you little beasts way. They giggle and fall silent.

Cinder keeps on talking about the Redwood Forest, but now only because he wants to, not because he’s trying to jar me out of blackness.

Not his responsibility. Never.

Do you understand?

Do you understand the danger of making a child feel responsible for taking you out of your foul mood?

Not for putting you in a foul mood. That’s different. I’ve got no qualms at all about saying, “Mommy’s pissed off because you dumped the potty over the balcony and stuck a crayon up the dog’s butt.”

But when when I’m unhappy—when you’re unhappy–when you and I are angry, black, broken, all those ugly, ugly feelings that come on all of us (and always at the most inconvenient times, no?)—it’s our job to work on ourselves and get ourselves out of that dark place.

Or–a therapist’s.

Not our children’s. It’s not their responsibility. Not their burden.


They’ll take it on, you know, if you don’t stay aware. And I’m not crazy or dogmatic: a little love and care from the people around you, even the little people, when you’re down, is a beautiful thing. Nothing like a hug or a bowl of chocolate chips put into a frazzled mother’s hand at just the right time to turn a hard moment around.

A little love, awareness, affection. A beautiful thing.

Taking on responsibility for fixing a parent’s, an adult’s blackness?

Not their responsibility. Not their burden.




Cinder long messy hair unhappyP.S. Don’t worry, the black mood is gone, and I love everyone and everything again. Well, maybe not everyone. Or everything. But–all the important people. And enough things. But. Anger as a parent. A terrifying thing, is it not? Close your eyes (unless you’re driving). Breathe….

Photo: Cinder in an unhappy mood of his own. But, if I recall right, this was had a very direct cause: swarms of pre-flood mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds with the appetites of vampire bats.

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36 thoughts on “I’m the adult: not burdening children with responsibility for fixing our black moods

  1. I’m a fairly new reader of your blog, and I love it. This post just made me slam back in time to when my kids and I were on our own and going through quite possibly the darkest times we’ve had yet as our little family. And how, even at such a tender age of 4, my oldest was so in tune with me and my emotions that he would be the one to pull me out of that – on the regular. The feeling I get when I remember what I put them through – its like slamming into a brick wall at mach speed. But then I breathe and remember that we’re not there anymore, we’re in the now. And in the now, we are better and we do better and they are ‘just kids’ again – not the keepers of my mood.

  2. Coming from a bipolar mom and a child that lived in a home with an undiagnosed parent, I agree that it should not be a child’s burden. I never once felt that my parent was my responsibility. Did I try to make them feel better and smile? Sure. Did I know when to get the fuck out? You bet. Did I feel bad that I couldn’t help them. Sure. But did I feel at fault because I couldn’t? No.
    Do you think that maybe he was trying to cheer you up out of his own beautiful heart…that maybe he didn’t even think twice that he needed to be responsible for the way you were feeling.
    If my son was feeling this way, you better believe that I would step in and try to help cheer him up. I know that is different but you know where he is learning it from and that is you.
    My son does this all the time and I tell him that I’m not well. It’s important to tell them about how you’re truly feeling…and that you appreciate them so much. I say let them comfort their moms…to me…that is the best thing in the entire universe.
    It’s not their burden until you make it clear to them that you are not.

    • You know, Kimberly, it was quite different. They are beautiful and empathetic children, and they know when someone needs a hug, a kind word–a bowl of chocolate. This was very, very different. There was definitely a sense of taking responsibility for “fixing me.” And when he is in a dark mood–I can be there for him. I can love him. I can offer him comfort. But I know I can’t fix him. And he can’t think he can fix me, or another person… I think perhaps this post is about an even deeper issue than I thought when I penned it…

    • I definitely see the merit in what you’re saying here. But in my own personal experience – there is a subtle but important difference in how my child comforts me out of love, and when he gets that look in his eyes when he’s desperately trying to take me out of my dark mood. I suffered a back injury last year, and so now when I sigh and start moving a bit slowly he’ll come and softly rub my back and ask if I’m ok. Or he’ll hold my hand a little tighter when he senses i’m down about something. That’s when he’s comforting out of love. The times I don’t like, are when he gets this frantic look in his eyes, and apologizes. Or worse, asks if I’m angry because of he and his sister. I know from some heart to hearts with him lately, that he’s internalized a LOT of what he saw me go through and sensed I was feeling. And feels like he has to be extra good, extra funny, extra something, to make me better. So there’s a fine, subtle, and sometimes wavy, line between that sweet comfort that we get from our kids and putting our problems onto their shoulders.

  3. In reading your post I wanted to shout out, “Yes!” I feel so passionately about this, also. I have four kids (17, 13, 5, and 3). When I first experienced a serious depression two years ago (now diagnosed Bipolar 2), my eldest (a boy) started to watch me that more carefully.

    He’d try to walk on tiptoes around me, to do whatever he could to make me feel better. While some compassion from a child is lovely, it was much too much. At the age of 15, when he SHOULD have been talking back, breaking curfew, or hell, even just drinking juice out of the carton, he was doing all he could to not make waves, for fear that his mom could “break”. To me, he was acting like a man when he had no business being one yet!

    I remember sitting down with him and letting him know that I would be okay, no matter how rough things seemed, to basically give him permission to act like a kid again. Since then, I think he’s let go of some of his worry about his mom and put more of his focus back on where it should be–being a teen.

  4. Really interesting. I had a rough weekend while my husband was away (as you may have noticed) and I was seriously hating on myself for letting those tears and anger come through to my son (and my poor, neurotic dog). What do you do in the moment, though? Do I need to get myself a prescription for some benzos?? Or take an anger management class? Counting to 10 doesn’t seem to always do the trick. I never want to burden my child with my bad moods. Then again, I also don’t want him to think that Mommy has no emotions, just happy and sunny all day long.

    • I’m not talking about hiding the emotions. Faking it? No. I want an authentic life, and that includes–being sad. Angry. I’m not talking about making the child responsible for fixing you–for feeling responsible like they need to save you. Too big a burden. Too big a burden to bear for a spouse–for a friend–as an adult. An impossible, unacceptable burden for a child.

  5. You are such a deep feeler and I responded to this the way we often respond to something that was written straight from the heart, I was reading this with my heart. I know exactly what you talk of. The horror of having my (4-year-old) child try to fix me. I always remind myself not to fall into this pattern. Don’t let nurture and genetics be an excuse for me. This was one of those posts that tugs at your heart. I’m submitting this to Schmutzie’s Five Star Friday. Fingers crossed!

  6. In the past few years I have dealt with some very dark things-unemployment, one child with multiple behavior issues, barely making it financially, etc-and consequently I have had some very dark moods. I’ve had many tears, many days of not even wanting to get off the couch. My daughter, while she knows how to push my buttons, also knows how to comfort her mommy. When my mood is down she is the first to want to take care of me and to help me with everything. She is such a gift… god bless that child. Now remind me I said that tomorrow when we again do battle over the “fancy black shoes”.

  7. Although I am not proud of it, there was a period of time where I did hold my son responsible for my mood and feelings. I was frustrated over little things like shoes in the middle of the floor or the laundry forgotten and somehow that would make me overwhelmed. Thankfully, I realized my mistake and fixed it-tendency to get overwhelmed yes! Blaming on my kid-not anymore 🙂

  8. Now I know why I didn’t read this until today. With our current situation my gray, not black – because really I’m just scared and freaking out – mood has also become something my son thinks he can fix. Or so I thought. I don’t know if you saw my facebook post, but this is what he said to me today: Mommy, you don’t have to worry. God will take care of us. He’s always watching. Not like he has video cameras or anything. But, you know, He sees you when you’re sleeping He knows when you’re awake. Like Santa, but WAY better.
    My question to you as another homeschooling mama, how do you hide those horrible days from the kids you are with all day?

    • I don’t hide, beloved. I just make it clear that it’s not their job or responsibility to fix me. “I’m sad/angry today–I apologize in advance for being cranky–I’ll get myself out of this, it’s not on you.” And then we watch movies. Or go to the zoo. Or for ice cream…

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  10. Yes. This is one of the only thing that truly motivates me to get my shit together- the real fear of having my children assume the role of my caretaker. Like so many generations of my family members before me have done. I always appreciate extra reminders of why this is so essential- thanks for that.

  11. My mood has been pretty dark as of late. I’ve always tried to keep it away from my kids, but sometimes they really can’t avoid seeing me in a horrible, miserable mood that’s none of their making, though often they aren’t far from being a factor in making it worse. They seem all to aware of when button pushing is a bad idea…and do it anyway…long story behind that…

    Anyhow, it’s funny. We have two reactions here. My oldest turns emo. Everything is horrible. She doesn’t care about anything. She sulks, mopes, and makes everyone around her more miserable. My oldest son, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the whole thing, but has uncanny timing. He comes in doing something funny and breaks the tension. He also does this when the house seems too quiet, when someone isn’t feeling well, and whenever he feels overwhelmed. I think there’s something valuable about those who just seem to carry cheer and good moods with them wherever they go. Some people naturally just can’t help it.

    • I’m in no way advocating keeping your dark moods hidden. That’s not healthy. Or possible! What I’m cautioning about though is creating a situation in which the child takes on and carries the emotional responsibility for caring for the parent. We’re not trying to stunt their empathy: but we’re the adults… it’s our job to not dump onto them what they ought not to handle–what they cannot fix.

      • Very true. I just found it interesting to look at what you talked about and see the interesting contrast to what happens in my own family. It’s definitely given me something to think about.

  12. You. Yes. This. So true. As a kid who grew up with a massive bitch of a narcissistic mother who almost made us responsible for everymood, I agree and have made a pledge with every piece of me that I will never ever ever do this to my son. Ever. Unless it’s accidentally in which case I will draw on the wisdom of this post and remember what, exactly, my kid is responsible for. Which is not for my mood unless he stuck a crayon up the dog’s butt.
    I so like you.

  13. I think we all have our moments. I am not proud about 2 weeks ago, I was getting my period and on edge for a bit one day on the weekend. I had to do what you said and explain that it wasn’t them, but just me. I felt terrible afterwards and glad those types are moments are few and far between. Really could relate though and a by the way, the crayon up the butt is why we don’t have a dog as of yet!!

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  15. I grew up in a house that taught me that it was my sole responsibility to avoid putting my parents in that place and my sole responsibility to get them out of it. It took me a year of therapy and a critical incident with my mother at 27 years old for me to open my eyes and see what my true responsibility was. That responsibility was to myself, my mental health, and the amazing importance of protecting my 2 year old daughter from ever feeling like this. Well written, poignant post. Thanks for this.

  16. Pingback: “My children are my best friends.” “Really? What the hell’s wrong with you?” | Nothing By The Book

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