I’ve been getting some hits on the post “Mirroring the Meltdown,” so I wanted to give some more thoughts on the topic of meltdowns.
The thing with meltdowns is that every child (and adult, too!) has them at some point. In children, meltdowns can be entirely developmental, and they can also be an indication that further evaluation of your child may be necessary (as in Autism spectrum disorder or ASD). Just because meltdowns are simply part of raising kids (and/or simply part of developmental disorders), it doesn’t mean that we can’t help ourselves or our children in this area. And just because we are adults now doesn’t mean that we are exempt from having meltdowns ourselves. In fact, many of us could greatly benefit from raising our own awareness of how we handle stress, our emotions, and other people.
(I’ve documented some of my own journey through increasing mindfulness and decreasing stress in Thoughts for Effective Living, Less Stress Is More Happiness: A Mindfulness Journal, How to Disengage from a Highly Stressful Environment, and 7 De-stressing Strategies for Effective Living.)
Here are some practical ways that we parents can navigate the often bumpy terrain of our child’s meltdown mode.
- ANTICIPATE the meltdown (within reason and to the extent that you can).
Try to identify what the triggers might be for your child’s meltdown. If they want to eat off the green plate and refuse to eat off of any other plate (think 2- or 3-year-olds), then try to make it available to them (you know, like wash it so that it can be used/re-used or have extras of the green plate). If they meltdown in the morning because they don’t want to go to school (think 5- or 6-year-olds), try to have their clothes picked out with their input or offer screen time if they can be dressed and ready to go with time to spare or offer to walk them to the bus stop if they don’t want to be alone. Sometimes putting forth a little tiny bit of effort upfront will pay you back easily with cooperation and non-resistant compliance.
- PREVENT the meltdown (within reason and to the extent that you can).
If you sense that a meltdown is brewing, sometimes you can take preventative measures to keep the meltdown at bay. If you notice that your child has meltdowns when they are tired, try to encourage them to go back to sleep if they wake up early or to take a nap during the day (age 2 or 3, for example). If you notice that your child has meltdowns when they are rushed or frustrated (any age, really), try to take that into consideration as you plan time schedules and offer your assistance.
- DE-ESCALATE the meltdown (if one has already begun).
Here’s where we kind of feel like we live for a while when we have young children around. Meltdowns are part of growing up and part of life, so what we can do to help our children and ourselves at this time in child-rearing is to give helpful scripts and responses when the meltdown is already in play. We will never be able to prevent 100% of our children’s meltdowns—nor would we want to upfront because it’s through the meltdowns (unfortunately) that our children learn about emotions regulation, self-control, and making good choices. It is true, though, that some children need more help than others in this area, but this is where we come in as the important influence that we are in our children’s lives.
If you hear in your child’s voice that they are frustrated while playing, for example, offer some upbeat and friendly assistance. You can say something like, “Is everything okay in here?” or “It sounds like you’re getting frustrated. How can I help?” Use the sound of your voice to create some positive vibes in the room. If you come in hollering about how they need to stop whining about everything, then you can’t really expect to fend off the meltdowns with much finesse.
Offering friendly assistance is sometimes all that is needed for some children to dial down the emotion and re-gain control over themselves. This can especially be the case when dealing with siblings that are having trouble playing well together. Being a friendly, helpful, and upbeat point person (as the active, involved, and effective parents we are) can really have a long-term, positive effect over the atmosphere of our home environments. The trick, though, is to catch the meltdown early at the first sign of frustration or distress.
- BRAVE the meltdown (if it couldn’t be de-escalated).
If your efforts to de-escalate the meltdown (like offering friendly assistance) aren’t sticking, then just find your center and do the best you can to hold on until the meltdown is over. Meltdowns ebb and flow like the tide, so if you give it enough time, your child will be all meltdown-ed out before too long. The main concern with getting to this point is if your child becomes aggressive and/or destructive while having a meltdown. What I have found effective for me (and it might not be the case with everyone, granted) is four-fold.
One, I go into a neutral, low gear kind of mode. If I become reactive, then it’s gasoline on the fire. But if I disengage from the meltdown, then it’s over much faster than if I try to teach life lessons in the middle of it. (The life lessons come later, like after the storm.) The goal right now is to demonstrate that meltdown behavior does no good. It doesn’t earn attention. It doesn’t get our children what they want. It’s a waste of time and energy.
Two, I stand by the broken-record message of, “We can talk about this when you calm down.” Our children will ask for food and screen time and toys and attention. But none of this is on the table (in the case of a major meltdown when aggression and/or destructiveness is live) until they calm down and are ready to talk about what happened.
Three, I expect that broken things get fixed and that wrongs are made right. This is where all can be lost if we have soft hearts (and don’t we all). But it’s also where major meltdowns are most effectively decreased because our children see and feel the direct connection between their meltdowns and the effect they have on other people and things. If papers were ripped, our children will need to tape them up. If our children wrecked a room, they will need to tidy it back up. If our children made spills or dumped over food, they will need to clean up the mess. If our children threw things and broke stuff, they will need to fix it or throw away what can’t be fixed. If they hit people or hurt others, they will need to say I’m sorry. (I’m thinking of Max from Parenthood with his lesson in empathy after he yelled out during a meltdown that he didn’t care about his cousin in the hospital and his dad talked to him about why it was important for him to apologize to his aunt about what he said.)
This (making right the wrongs) will, naturally, sometimes trigger another meltdown (and so we can be tempted to not require this step if we are tired of the meltdowns). But this part is absolutely critical if we are serious about decreasing the intensity and frequency of the meltdowns that our children have. They must see and feel the connection between their meltdowns and what that means for them (the essence of what natural consequences are). If we are always the ones cleaning up their meltdown messes, then we are not allowing them to experience the full remorse of such an event. Conversely, if we consistently hold our children accountable for their actions (even with and, really, especially with meltdowns), they will eventually learn that although they can’t always control everything around them (like the things that may have triggered the original meltdown), they can control what they do with the emotions they feel. We can help them learn how to release their negative emotions in constructive ways instead of destructive ways. “Emotions 101 for Kids” is a post I wrote that gets into this a little more in the form of some things we can say in the moment.
Four, I require a talk before moving on. The message here is that it’s okay to be angry but it’s not okay to take our anger out on people or things (or animals, etc.). We can find solutions to our problems without letting our emotions run away with us. We can learn how to recognize when our frustration meter is rising, and we can intentionally cool ourselves down. We can stay in control of ourselves even if we feel angry about something. I try to not use this time to lecture but to garner collaboration in coming up with a solution to the original problem. When our children feel heard, then it does something positive for them, and they will feel less of a need to act out to be heard the next time.
- LEARN FROM the meltdown (this one can be hard from an honesty perspective, but it’s extremely helpful in the transformative process of self-reflection and self-development).
Some meltdowns can be anticipated, prevented, and de-escalated. If we just got through a meltdown with our child, it can be helpful to reflect on what happened during it, what the triggers might have been, and how we might respond differently the next time. Sometimes the triggers have nothing to do with us. And sometimes the triggers do. The way we interact with our children might have a negative effect on them, thus contributing to the triggers. None of us want to be part of the problem, but it’s necessary to examine all aspects of the situation, including our involvement, if we are serious about truly helping our children gain more control over themselves.
Sometimes, though, meltdowns happen in our children no matter the extent to which we have tried to anticipate them, prevent them, and de-escalate them. It can still be helpful to take a look at how we brave the storm and how we emerge from it and how we re-connect with our child after it. These are critical pieces of the picture as well, and sometimes our children can benefit from the post-experience when they see that we still love them, accept them, and want to help them.
It’s tempting to question the gods and ask, “Why me?” when we find ourselves in the middle of a meltdown that is really difficult to listen to or be a part of. But as soon as we want to think things like that, it’s helpful to simply accept that this is what it is. And then to proceed the best we can. We don’t have to know why we have it so bad. All we need to know is that we can get through this and learn how to be cool, calm, and collected even though it’s a challenging situation. We do not have to succumb to being pulled in to a meltdown and end up having one of our own. We can separate from it and maintain a level head about it. We can be an example of grace under fire, and we can model for our children what it looks like and sounds like to stay in control of oneself even if emotions are running high. We often find that we are on a learning curve as well as our children in terms of emotions regulation. But this is the point: this is part of our growth, too. Being a parent to the fullest means that we allow our experiences with our children to have a positive, transformative effect on us—even when things get tough. I wish you the best on your journey of child-friendly parenting and self-development alike.