It may have been because of desperation, but I have stumbled upon a meltdown management strategy that works like magic. I’m talking like every time. The trick is that I have to be the one who is willing to not be so serious about the meltdown that my child is having.
Sometimes children have meltdowns because they don’t want to do (and are trying to get out of doing) basic responsibility stuff that’s age and developmentally appropriate. During these times, it’s best (I’ve found) to keep a firm resolve. Not mean. Just firm. Unchangeable. Business-like. Neutral in tone. Dirty socks go in the hamper. What’s that? You want ice cream? Okay, no problem. After I see those dirty socks in the hamper (to a six year old—could also work with a three year old).
But sometimes children have meltdowns because they really can’t help it. They are children, after all. They sometimes have a hard time managing their many complex emotions (as we all do, even into adulthood). During these times, what helps is to try to snap them out of it somehow. This is where silliness and humor and distraction all become immensely valuable. See all those kids with their smart screens in the restaurant? I’m not so sure you want all those kids to be without their handy distraction and attention-holding devices. Expecting some (if not all) of those children to have to brave the lights, sounds, people, and movement in a calm and graceful way is just way too much to expect. It’s simply not realistic. Plus, some children really have a hard time with sensory processing. It’s not a funny game to them to be “acting out” all the time when the triggers largely leave them helpless, and it’s not intentional misbehavior. It’s something that they really can’t control.
So if you can recognize that the meltdown in play is a result of over-stimulus or from feeling overwhelmed or from some pervasive fixation thing, it’s extremely effective to somehow help them to break from where their mind is. Take them somewhere else (in their mind). There are many ways to do this (if you’re in the mood to be this way, that is—because sometimes it’s just too hard and all we can do is to simply endure what we must ). Start telling a crazy and weird story. (Once upon a time, there was a green bear. He smelled stinky and liked to eat his toys. Et cetera.) Start telling illogical jokes. (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Honk. Honk who? Trains go honk-honk. Et cetera.) By virtue of the silliness, children will play along and will forget what they were melting down about in the first place.
But the quickest way, every time (at least for me, when I’ve done this), to snap a child out of their helpless meltdown is to mirror what they look like. It’s true! You will feel like a fool for doing it (and, at first, it might seem like you’re mocking them—but you’re really not. You’re trying to show them that you understand how they feel and so when they see you feeling what they are feeling, they snap out of it almost immediately. They have been heard. They have been felt. And now they’re laughing (because it’s hilarious to see Mommy or Daddy doing exactly and looking exactly like they do and look when they have a meltdown). It’s not to make fun of them or to make them feel bad for having a meltdown. Quite the contrary! You’re feeling their pain, experiencing it with them (but it’s in a humorous way), and then you both can emerge in good spirits. Laughing. Joking. It might feel impossible in the moment because how many meltdowns can one parent endure—having to listen to it, deal with it, try to avoid it, try to de-escalate it, and trying to wait it out. This is the tough stuff of life. Right here. But if you can, for one moment, get out of your head and step into your child’s world, it makes all of the difference.
When I do the mirror-the-meltdown thing, I don’t even make any noise. I just contort my face to match my child’s. It is hilarious to my child. It’s like I’m making fun of myself. I’m not—repeat, not—making fun of or mocking in anyway my child. I am simply participating in the agony of what he or she might be feeling. And somehow, this mutual dis-affection for meltdowns (this willingness on my part to not be “against” the meltdown as my child is going through it but instead be “with” my child during the meltdown in this way) brings my child out of the meltdown already in play and allows us both to move on without a meltdown in tow.
This mirroring strategy is intended for use in a private setting like at home. If children are having a public meltdown, it’s best to just put on a blank face and endure it while also trying to talk understanding-ly to them. The meltdown will eventually roll away (think of it as ebbing and flowing), so just do your best to not lose your cool while having to endure the flow of it while waiting for the great graces of the ebb. (Remember the contractions in childbirth? Like that.) Set the best example you can of self-control and gentleness. Toughness while enduring a meltdown doesn’t mean that you have to be mean. So stay tough (obviously) if the meltdown is a result of, say, wanting the super-duper mega toy thing that they just can’t live without and are throwing themselves on the floor to demonstrate about. This is not the time to mirror their meltdown.
Mirroring the meltdown is about infusing some silly into a potentially serious event in an effort to prevent things from spiraling out of control unnecessarily so. Meltdowns can get serious, and if you can let your child know early on in the meltdown (once it has started or is starting to start) that you’ve heard them, seen them, and felt them, then they can often move on and move past the meltdown and into regular mode again.
What are some ways that you respond to meltdowns that have worked for you?