Meltdowns are a sensitive subject for me. I should admit that I was simply scared of them and reacted to them rather than respond for many years. My fear was coming from wondering: “Is it normal? How serious is it? Is there something wrong with my child? How long will she cry for (it seemed endless)? Will it ever stop? What should I do?”
“What should I do?” was probably the most crucial question. Now I feel at ease during my students’ meltdowns – I feel I can help, I feel I know how I can be there for them. Thus, I would love to share with you a few tools that might be helpful to you while you are dealing with a child melting down:
1. Stay Calm
I know that sounds difficult and almost impossible!!
What helped me, was learning :
- the fact that meltdowns are a normal part of children’s development at ages 2 and 3.
- children have as much of a challenging time as people around them. Even if it seems to start as the urge to obtain something from you, in the middle of the meltdown your child do no control over it.
2. Stay with your child (make sure he and everyone around is safe)
Some children love to be held tightly. Some like to be free and run around, they get even angrier if adults try to hold them. Very fast you will figure out what approach your child prefers.
3. Support your child with reassuring short phrases “I am here for you. I know this is hard…”
Children barely can hear us during meltdowns, so do not try to reason, lecture, explain, convince, or talk too much.
4. Go to a quiet empty room with your child – (if you have the opportunity).
It may not always be possible, try, if you can. For example at preschool, you might go outside or to another room. You can leave the store and go sit in your car.
5. Wait until the meltdown is over
This is actually the only secret to IT. And the only thing you can do during a meltdown.
6. In the evening time when the child and you feel better, you can talk about what happened
You can create a book with simple drawings (perhaps stick figures) and simple words describing what happened. “We went to the store. And you really liked that shiny car. We didn’t buy it. You were very sad!” The child might want to add to the story or correct you: “Not sad—ANGRY!”, or he might just listen.
This is also a great opportunity to create a future strategy. “I wonder what we can do next time.” Pause. “Maybe you can jump up and down. Do you want to try? Or we can blow a big beach ball – you give breath and I will pretend to hold the ball.” (When the next meltdown happens you can remind your child about this strategy and offer the alternative to laying down and kicking, screaming).
What not to do:
- Do not have a meltdown yourself (like I used to do).
- Do not punish, treat, or shame your child. Remember your child is having a challenging time and not trying to make you angry, sad, or miserable. Once the tantrum has started, the child has very little control over it.
- Do not bribe or give in by giving your child what they asked for that prompted the tantrum
I know, sometimes it is very tempting to give in…. And even though I just said that children do not have much control during the meltdown; they can easily learn that starting a meltdown is the best strategy to get what they want. My own daughter once honestly told me: “Oh mommy of course I knew to start crying when you said “no”, soon you will cry too, and then feel guilty, we would hug, and then you would do what I asked you.”
- Do not ignore your child.
Staying calm and not giving a big reaction is different than ignoring.
Things you want to be aware of in order to prevent unnecessary meltdowns:
- Have age-appropriate expectations (it is hard at age 2 or 3 to wait, sit still, be quiet).
- Be aware of overscheduling your child – (a child who is overscheduled, may not have downtime and thus may have more meltdowns) you might want to re-evaluate the number of activities you have for your child and the number of places you go together.
- Fatigue can set off a child, it is very important for children to get enough hours of sleep and rest.
- Hunger can set off a child, always be prepared, and have a nutritious snack in your bag to offer him when needed.
- Re-evaluate your child’s environment – so as not to be overstimulating, the concept ‘Less is More’ should be followed.
- Noise within the environment – some children are super sensitive to noise, you might need to go to a quieter room.
- Number of people in a room – some children are super sensitive to a large number of people and may get overwhelmed and meltdown as a result.
- Lack of Control – When children don’t have appropriate choices, they lose control and can’t cope, thus they meltdowns.
The other reasons for meltdowns:
- Not able to communicate what they want. We can help our children, by using active listening. “Looks like you are trying to reach for that toy….” “Maybe you want some more water to drink…”
- Not getting what they want immediately. We can help our children, by using active listening. “It seemed like you wanted that car and your sister is holding it tight.”
- Not being able to perform a task can be frustrating.
- And again we can support our children by staying with them, not rescuing them, not
belittling their problem, but offering empathy: “I see you tried to stick that shape in and
it just wouldn’t fit.”
While children are growing they have to figure out and learn many things such as why they can’t have everything they want, and how to communicate their wishes. Gaining self-control is a long and challenging process. Children need our support during that time; they count on us and trust us to be good models.
Photo credit: Mikhail Bibichkov, Denise Korpachev.
Let me know if you need more information about RIE® Parent-Infant Guidance™ Classes.
Wishing you all the best in this difficult yet exciting journey of parenting!