Every parent and caregiver has been there, unable to stop her child from melting down. He goes from happy and carefree to a crying, screaming, wailing puddle of tears in less than a minute. Not every meltdown is that dramatic, but they all can be confusing and frustrating to the adult helplessly standing by. Here are some tips on different ways to manage the meltdown.
Check to see if your child is sick, tired, or hungry. Many meltdowns happen because a child’s physical needs aren’t being met and he simply becomes overwhelmed. When he’s in this state, the physical cause has to be addressed before he can move into a calmer place and that may take a while. He isn’t making a choice to act out; he’s being guided by his body.
The great news is these situations can often be avoided with a little smart planning. Avoid running errands or attending social events during your child’s nap time or past his regular bed time, and make sure your kid bag is packed with lots of healthy snacks and bottled water.
Be on the lookout for other sensitivities. Even if your child isn’t sick, tired, or hungry there may be other physical reasons for his meltdown. Some children have sensory issues that make it difficult to process certain situations. If your child has a meltdown whenever he has to wear socks or eat crunchy foods or sit in his chair with his feet on the ground, he might have a sensory processing issue. Although that sounds daunting, many situations can be controlled through simple accommodations.
Offer choices that you can live with. One of the most common reasons children melt down is because they don’t feel a sense of power or control over a situation. That powerlessness gives way to anger and frustration and a meltdown begins. A safe way to give them power and control is to offer limited choices. The key is to only offer choices that you can live with. Instead of telling your child he’s having carrots for lunch ask him if he’d like carrots, peas, or corn.
Instead of telling your child he’s wearing a jacket to the park, ask him if he’d like to wear a jacket or heavy sweatshirt to the park. When he makes the choice, there’s a much better chance he’ll be happy with it. That doesn’t mean he won’t grumble over having to eat a vegetable or having to wear more than a t-shirt, it just means there’s a much better chance the grumble won’t turn into a meltdown and instead will be a small lesson in staying positive and making the best choice when you’re not thrilled with any of the choices available.
Set clear expectations and consequences. Children do best when they know what to expect. When you act or react in a way they don’t expect, it often triggers a meltdown. Set clear, age appropriate boundaries for your child and let him know exactly what will happen if those boundaries aren’t maintained. For example, as you head towards the playground say, “We’re going to have so much fun at the park today! There are lots of kids in the sandbox. You can play in there for as long as you want but it’s important that you share the dump trucks with the other kids. If you can’t do that, we’ll have to leave the sandbox and play in another part of the park.”
Create a transition ritual. Stopping a fun activity and moving onto a less fun activity is hard for kids. Giving them ample notice of the change and finding ways to make the transition more fun will avoid meltdowns. Announcing a 5 minute warning followed by a 2 minute warning before you say, “OK, it’s time to clean up!” will help take the surprise out of the transition. Also, singing a favorite song or playing a clean-up game will help take the drudgery out of the chore.
Don’t take it personally. When your child melts down, it can seem very personal. It can seem like he’s doing it to get back at you, to embarrass you, to make you feel guilty for not giving him what he wants. So while it may feel very personal, do your best to react calmly and supportively. He’s looking to you for guidance on how to calm down and behave appropriately. He’s still learning how to do those things and meltdowns are perfect teaching opportunities.
Meltdowns are a natural part of a child’s development. They can be embarrassing, frustrating, confusing, and downright exasperating but they can also be wonderful teachable moments.
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