By Phil Slade

You know the feeling. When it all gets too much. When the world demands one too many things from you, and you simply have nothing left to give. It could be the simplest of triggers, but there is a point when your emotional system grabs control of you and screams “Enough is enough!”

You go Apes#!t. Then, once you’ve completely flipped out at the unfortunate soul who happened to be in the path of your tirade, the regret sets in. Negative thoughts about your competency as a parent and the unhelpful ruminations about the consequences of your reactive outburst, which often keep you up at night, add to the cycle of exhaustion.

How do I know this? Well, because it happened to me, many times. But there was one time in particular that still haunts me a little.

Psychologist Phil Slade is the author of Going ApeS#!t which explores how to control your emotions and make better decisions.

It was a hot January day in the suburbs of Brisbane and I was looking after my two boys, who were 18-months and three years old at the time. It’s a period in our lives I often refer to as ‘the fog’. I was a music producer and composer primarily working from home, and this particular day I had a reasonably influential film director coming over for lunch to talk through the next film she was going to direct.

The day started normally—a night of broken sleep was met with the usual rounds of breakfasts, coffee and morning nappy changes. My wife headed to her office in the city, the kids were parked in front of the TV, and I started to work through the mountain of unfolded clothes that had managed to grow so large that there was no longer any cupboard space left to quickly hide the disorganisation.

Half-way through said task it all started to unravel. I had a run of small, but urgent, client requests coming through on the email, the air conditioner stopped working, I knocked over my cup of tea onto a clean sheet, and one of the boys stole a toy from the other which started a meltdown. As I picked up my younger son to console him I felt a completely squishy nappy and headed for the change table for the third time that morning. Check the clock. 11am—where the heck did the day go?

Boys back with toys and rusk biscuits (that made an almighty mess, but were amazing silencers) and I found the small plastic trike that my eldest loved so much. Too hot now for clothes so both boys stripped to nappies. Shove unfolded clothes into cupboard and start to clean the kitchen for important client meeting at midday. Half an hour away. Back in control, kitchen getting cleaned and boys peaceful.

Distracted by the previous night’s dishes I don’t really notice what the boys are doing, and then I smell something odd. Ten minutes before very important meeting now. I pop my head around the corner of the kitchen and notice a thick line of brown smudge all over our cream carpet. Then it dawns on me.

My eldest, who was playfully riding the trike, had done a ‘number 2’ that his nappy had failed to contain. It popped out the side of the nappy and landed on the left back wheel of the plastic trike. Then, as he rode the trike around the lounge room—from one side to the other and every way in between—the offending object had stuck to the wheel, which as it turned had stencil-stamped poo all over the carpet!

“Stop!” I yelled in disbelief, completely reacting to the situation. “What are you doing? Can’t you see what you’re doing? You’re ruining everything!”

Both kids stop in their tracks, shocked at the sudden outburst. My eldest gives me that devastating look that says “I was being happy and quiet like you wanted, why am I in trouble? Don’t you love me anymore?” Then, a cacophony of painful sound that can only be created by a duo of small children’s agonising cries.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, at that point there was a knock at the open door (as it was too hot to keep it closed) and there I was, with two screaming children in nothing but nappies and half chewed biscuit mush, poo spread all over the house, me in my daggy-dags sweating from head to toe in a complete panic. To top it all off, at that point the cupboard door popped open under the pressure of the mountain of clothes it was holding back, tumbling into the dining room behind me. Just perfect. Not the image you want to give a director who might be about to entrust their precious project to you.

I stand in the middle of the room and for some inexplicable reason let out an almighty “Aarrgghh!” that momentarily shocks the children into silence and causes the director to say, “It’s OK, would you like me to swing by tomorrow instead?” At that point I felt like a complete failure, I’m a mess, the kids are crying and the director I’m sure was already going ringing plan B.

Keeping calm in the midst of exhaustion and external pressure is hard, but the more we can avoid going Apes#!t, the better our lives, and the lives of those around us, will be.

The next day, when I was more in control, I got my Mum to come and sit the boys while I met the director at a coffee shop, which was a much better plan. The good news is, I got the gig and my boys have grown up without any memory of this day, or any mental scars from my brain snap. We also ended up with polished wooden floors so turns out my son did me a favour after all. Most often our brain snaps do nothing but hurt the ones we love the most, and contribute to reinforcing any negative views we already hold about ourselves.

Keeping calm in the midst of exhaustion and external pressure is hard, but the more we can avoid going Apes#!t, the better our lives, and the lives of those around us, will be.

Biologically and psychologically we all have an ‘Ape’—it’s the parts of our brain that are also found in the brains of chimpanzees, and are evolutionarily wired to emotionally react to threatening or stressful situations. When we ‘flip our lids’ and react in the moment, we literally uncage an animal within and become less of a human and more of an Ape. Your ability to tame your Ape when it wants to bust out of its cage is psychologically proven to predict your long term financial, physical and social health.

The more you can avoid flipping out, the better your relationships will be, the more opportunities will open up to you, and the less likely you will be to suffer ill health.

Parenting is one of the most beautiful, but challenging, things we do as humans. One of the big challenges is how to take care of your own needs when the needs of everyone else always seem to have a far greater priority. Selflessness means we give, even when we’ve got nothing left, and then at some point our Ape explodes in an effort to bring some balance back—usually without any care for the people around us. The constant sleep deprivation, social judgement and mental exhaustion makes you ‘trigger-ready’ and primed to ‘go Apes#!t’ at any second—closely followed by bouts of shame and self-loathing.

WATCH: 5 Minute Mindfulness Meditation with Luke McLeod. Continues after video …

But there is hope! Here are the three things you can do as parents to better manage your reactivity, and keep your Ape in its cage.

  1. Use time and space to manage the physical environment. Apes are contagious—remove the Ape from the tribe so everyone else can keep it together. If there is a public tantrum, resist the Ape urge in your exhausted state to be aggressive, and simply (and quickly) go somewhere private where you feel less pressure or embarrassment. This allows for more time and patience to be taken to ‘calm the farm’. People are more generous and forgiving than you think. Your groceries will most likely still be there when you return.
  2. Manage yourself. If you are about to explode, learn to take a few moments to do something like box breathe (this is the practice of slowly breathing in for four counts, holding for four counts, breathing out for four counts, and holding for four counts. Repeat at least five times) or any of the other mental switch tricks I outline in my book Going ApeS#!t. Practice this when you are not triggered so that when you are about to flip out it becomes a more automatic response than something you have to consciously think about in the moment.
  3. Increase understanding so that you can more quickly identify when your Ape is being triggered, and deal with it before it gets to breaking point. By understanding yourself better and where your limits are, you will end up doing things like avoiding loading your day up with back-to-back events, and having more compassion for others and not taking things too seriously. Understanding brings control and order to the chaos that our minds often feel, which helps settle us down and helps us become more emotionally intelligent.

Learn to tame your Ape and you will find yourself being more gracious to yourself and those around you, and more likely enjoy the moments of incredible joy that being a parent brings.

Phil Slade is a psychologist and author of the book Going Ape S#!t. To buy Going Ape S#!t and learn ways to tame your inner Ape, visit GoingApe.com.au.