Every Monday I like to try to answer a reader’s question, and this week we’re going to look at meltdowns in children. I’ve written before on how to handle temper tantrums in toddlers, but this is a little different because this reader’s child is older. She writes:
I have read a couple of your articles but wondered how you would approach meltdowns when things are simply not playing out how my daughter had envisioned. She is 5. For example, she had been wearing a particular t-shirt all day and it had gotten really dirty. Grandparents were coming over for dinner and we decided to bathe the kids before they arrived. I threw her t-shirt in the hamper on top of some already wet clothes. The problem started here because my kids normally put their own clothes in the hamper and so it may have been an indicator to me that she planned on putting the t-shirt back on. Anyway when it came to get dressed the t-shirt was not an option. (I am normally quite lenient when it comes to my kids picking their clothes) There was moaning and rolling on the bed. I tried to identify with her disappointment, identify what exactly about the t-shirt she liked – there may be one similar etc. but then also have her understand she needed to push though and choose another t-shirt. My question is – what is my goal? Ideally I’d like her to name the disappointment – help her figure out what she needs to press through it and move on. I know she is young but I feel that ‘coaching’ in the early years will make her able to coach herself later. Any thoughts? I should also add that these meltdowns–the moaning episodes and sobbing–can completely break the peace in our home and I want her to acknowledge this, too. Perhaps you have written on this?
I can picture what that’s like, because my oldest daughter used to find it difficult to control her emotions, too, though perhaps not to this extent. It does totally wreck your household, and it is absolutely infuriating and exhausting. So what do you do?
This is launch week for the second edition of my book To Love, Honor and Vacuum, and I thought this was an excellent question to start with, because the premise of that book is quite simple: too many women feel like maids rather than wives and mothers because we’re always working FOR people who take us for granted, rather than working WITH people to create a fun and nurturing home environment that points to Jesus. This mom sounds exactly like the kind of moms I’m talking to: you want to do a good job and raise great kids, but there are times that you just don’t like your kids that much and when you’re absolutely fed up.
Here are some thoughts on handling meltdowns in kids:
1. You cannot reason with a child in a full-blown meltdown
This woman is asking how to help her name what she’s feeling and thus help to work through the disappointment in a healthy way. I understand the desire to do this, but I don’t think it will work when the child is in the midst of throwing herself on the ground and screaming and sobbing. She isn’t thinking clearly, and trying to talk to her will likely escalate everything. You’ll get frustrated, she’ll get more mad at you because you’re giving her attention without giving her what she wants, and it will all get louder and give you a migraine.
2. Stop giving the child any attention
Tantrums are caused essentially by a combination of two things: kids can’t control their emotions and their emotions overwhelm them, and they get attention. That combination is so dangerous, because it can mean that the more that you acknowledge the tantrum or pay attention to it, the more tantrums they have.
Some children DO have an issue controlling negative emotions, and they do need to be coached through it. However, that coaching can’t be done at the time, and often being taught that tantrums are not acceptable is the first step. If they learn that they can’t just scream and cry when they’re upset, then, and only then, can they learn alternative things to do.
So I’d do this: if she starts to cry and flail and scream, pick her up and remove her from other family members. Put her in the bedroom and say, “I see that you’re upset, but the rest of us don’t want to hear this. When you’re calmed down you can come out again.” And then shut the door. Another option is to leave her where she is and then tell other family members, “Jane is being loud and rude, so let’s go somewhere else that’s quiet until she calms down.”
This doesn’t need to be said loudly or with a mean tone, but you need to give this impression:
What you are doing is NOT acceptable, and absolutely NO ONE will pay any attention to you while you do this.
If you are at a party and she does this, you either leave or you pick her up and put her in the backyard or the car until she calms down. You can even stand outside the car while she screams. If you’re in a store, same deal. Be absolutely unwavering in this: you cannot scream in public.
Then, when she is finished, tell her she should apologize to you and her siblings for creating a scene. (I don’t force apologies because I think they should come from the heart if we’re to teach real repentance, but I would seriously recommend that she apologize, and I would require her to acknowledge that she hurt the peace in the house.)
3. Make sure there is not an underlying issue
One caveat: meltdowns are a common feature of many conditions like autism or Asperger’s, because children just can’t process things not going the way they thought they were supposed to. Children need absolute order for the world to feel safe, and if the order is broken in some way, they don’t know how to handle it. It may be a good idea to see a physician to make sure there isn’t some sort of processing disorder going on.
4. AT A DIFFERENT TIME, coach your child on how to work through difficult emotions
When your child is calm, that is the time to help coach them on how to handle disappointment. Talk to them about identifying what they’re mad about, and about taking deep breaths, and about saying, “I’m sad” rather than screaming. Teach her to pray and say, “Jesus, help me to not be so mad.”
But I don’t think this can be done at the time well, and it is such an important skill to learn how to self-soothe (to talk yourself down from a tantrum). Making children do this isn’t being mean to them; it’s forcing them to learn to act appropriately, and actually is giving them control over their emotions. They have to calm themselves down, which means that they have to get control of the anger.
5. Be careful of letting your child set the tone for your house
To me, this is perhaps the most important and also most forgotten point. It is YOUR home. Your children should live by your rules. You have the right to enjoy being at home, and I’m afraid that all too many parents don’t enjoy it at all. I remember a couple I knew when my oldest daughter was 6 who had their 6-year-old in six (!) different after school activities–one for every night of the week, and one on Saturdays. And the reason? When their daughter was at home she was a terror, so they tried to keep her busy out of the house as much as possible to wear her out so that she wouldn’t have meltdowns.
But they were wearing themselves out, too!
We need to get back to the idea that adults have the right to expect certain behaviour from their children. You shouldn’t dread coming home. You shouldn’t dread having hours with the kids alone. You should be able to laugh at the kids, not mentally prepare the day so that nothing will happen that will set your child off.
This is your role. Your children should not hijack it, so don’t let them. You don’t have to apologize for wanting your life back. You don’t have to feel guilty for saying, “I can’t handle when my child is acting like this, so I’m just going to disengage when they do.”
Your child is acting inappropriately, and you have the right to expect them to act otherwise. You really do.
Now go, and set the tone yourself. Don’t let your child do it for you!