meltdown |ˈmeltˌdoun| noun
1 An external demonstration of emotional distress caused by anything from a dropped ice-cream cone on a hot summer’s day; being given a red cup when all he really wanted was a blue one; having to go to swim practice when she really wanted to go to her best friend’s party; when he didn’t want to switch off the video game … and many other triggers.
The good news is that parents can support their children during their meltdowns to minimize the negative effects … eventually getting to the point where a solution is possible. Here’s what happened at my house a while ago.
Me: Seems like something is bugging you. It’s not like you to be snarky with me.
Her: I’m fine. (shouting) I-M F-I-N-E FINE … What part of ‘I’m Fine’ don’t you understand?
Me: (Silently to myself) Well … I’m kinda getting that you’re not fine.
Me: Listen, I’m getting that something is up. You don’t seem like you want to talk about it right now. I’m going to go downstairs and if want to talk, let me know.
Ten minutes later …
Her: Mom …
1. Engage without judgment … or give time to calm
You know your children better than anyone and you know what calms them down. Some children will respond to a calm, quiet hug; others a few minutes to run around outside; others a gentle voice; others simply some quiet time to play and reconnect the thinking part of their brain with the big emotional part.
I gave my daughter time. She was in the bathroom, with the door locked and that was what she needed. She wasn’t going to hurt herself or damage anything, she just needed to be alone for the few minutes it took for her to call out to me. I must confess, the time was good for me too because I was feeling pretty helpless and frustrated!
2. Listen to the behavior (or the words) and reflect back to them
If your children are speaking, just listen. It’s often pointed out that LISTEN and SILENT are made up of the same letters. If they’re not speaking, listen to the behavior. If they’re crying, you can say something like ‘you’re so upset about something’. If they’re slamming doors or throwing things ‘wow … you are so MAD!’.
My daughter unlocked the door. She was sitting on the floor crying. I picked her up and she sat on my lap saying nothing for about 5 minutes. I just held her quietly. Slowly she began to tell me about what was going on. A few months earlier we had moved from the UK to the US and she was missing her friends and feeling like she was “losing her British-ness”.
3. Validate their feelings
Acknowledging your children’s feelings doesn’t have to mean that you are agreeing with them. When a child says “You love [sister] more than me” and you respond with “you’re feeling like I love her more than you” … is not a confirmation that you do. It’s simply allowing their feeling to be out there … heard.
My daughter was missing her friends – terribly – she has incredible friends back in the UK. If I had said ‘come on, buck up … don’t cry. Why don’t you call your new friends to come over?’ I would have completely invalidated her feelings and tried to fix things for her. It’s ok to be sad, to miss people, to be nervous about losing a part of your life that is special to you. Empathy and compassion will always be your best gift.
4. Ask questions
We are so quick to want to fix things for our kids and to help them feel better. Rather than advising them and telling them what to do, it is so much more effective to allow them to come up with their own solutions.
I asked my daughter what would help her retain her British-ness and how she could maintain her friendships. Over a cup of tea and a nice Cadbury biscuit (a little bit of Britain!) she decided that she would FaceTime her best friend over the weekend so they could have a virtual playdate. Her ideas … her solutions.
5. Stay calm
We know this is the holy grail of parenting. (For more help with keeping calm click here.) It always helps to have a go-to mantra to catch yourself. I love Bonnie Harris’ ‘my child is having a problem … not being a problem’. I will also say to myself ‘Choose: respond or react’. That usually clears my mind to make the conscious choice to respond to the situation with calm compassion. And each time, that alone makes all the difference in the world.
Using these five simple steps, meltdowns can be averted or reduced, family harmony restored, self-knowledge gained, understanding achieved, solutions found, self-esteem nurtured, compassion shown and relationships greatly enhanced.
This blog first appeared on The Parent Practice website.