If you are like many parents and caretakers, you likely both love and get anxiety from holidays. There is never a time where your child is so tempted by their desires for “things” and many caretakers find themselves saying “no” constantly. This results in either giving in (which can get really expensive, really quickly) or having to deliver bad news to your child.
We have all seen what comes next…
The pouting: Usually accompanied by mutterings under their breath that are just loud enough for you to know that they think you’re a bad person…but not quite loud enough for you to hear every word and put them in jeopardy of further repercussions.
The silent treatment: They want you to take note of their noble act of protest against your tyranny. You are the oppressor of their happiness and they want to make sure you know it. If they had a cardboard sign, they would most definitely be waving it at you!
The despair: Throwing their little bodies or flailing around as they drown in a sea of disbelief
The words of anger: “you don’t care about me” “you never do anything for me”, “why are you always so mean!?” and among others, one of the signature phrases “I hate you!”
The first step in understanding how to handle these situations is to first understand what category it fits in.
Understand the difference between a meltdown and the tantrum
Meltdowns and tantrums can look similar when they are happening, but there is a very big difference between the two. Tantrums occur when a child is trying to get something they want or need, while meltdowns occur when a child feels overwhelmed by their feelings or surroundings. This becomes important as we look at how to work with a child having a meltdown.
When dealing with a tantrum
Your child needs to know that you understand what they are after, so acknowledge it. Once you do, however, you do not need to feel like you have to cave in and give it to them. This can often feed into negative behavior. Instead, make it clear that you understand what they are after, and then help them see that there are more appropriate ways of expressing themselves. This can sound like:
“I see that you want my attention. When I am done talking to Jerry it will be your turn”
In this example, you have let them know that they will get the attention they desire, and an opportunity to “plead their case” sort to speak. Then you can instruct them on how to better express themselves so that they have a chance to get what they want:
“When you are done yelling, tell me calmly that you are ready for my time, and we can talk about what you want.”
Your child was not born knowing how to positively express themselves, so it is up to you to teach them the right way. Otherwise, what you see is the default which is an expression of disappointment.
The key to dealing with a meltdown is to understand where it comes from
A meltdown is your child’s reaction to feeling overwhelmed. This can occur when there is too much sensory information to process, or the world feels like it is bearing down on them. They yearn for the security of the familiar in light of a scary world that they do not fully understand.
For kids (and adults), meltdowns can be caused by having too many things to think about. For example, if they are deciding on what clothes to buy, or are on a back-to-school shopping trip. It just seems like too much for them, and they overflow and then shut down as a way of dealing with it.
Children can also experience a meltdown as a result of a trigger that brings back lots of unsolved or overwhelming emotions. If they have experienced some type of trauma, or if they have too many sad things to think about, children are able to compartmentalize, but the walls holding back those emotions are very thin. If they come across something that reminds them of what they experienced or was impacted by, then all of those emotions and feelings come rushing back and they will likely not understand how to deal with it.
One way to manage a meltdown is to help your child find a quiet place that feels safe. This may sound like:
“Let’s leave this part of the mall and go sit down in the cafeteria for a few minutes.”
Picking a space that they can understand and not feel overwhelmed in is critical to them coming back to the center. Then you can provide a calm, reassuring presence through actions such as hugging or rubbing them. Do not talk them to death, just be there for them.
Remind & Reassure
If your child is having a meltdown due to a trigger, start by getting them to communicate what emotion they are feeling. It can often be easier for them to communicate a feeling versus articulating why exactly they feel the way they do…or even what they are feeling.
This can be as simple as asking:
“How are you feeling? Do you feel sad?”
Once they indicate how they feel, you can help them come back from the meltdown by letting them know it is okay for them to feel like that. Let them know that others all have those feelings, and remind them that they are loved. Then you can assure them that you all support them, and will be there for them, and whatever they are sad or mad about will get resolved soon enough.
As you are dealing with your little one, just keep in mind that they often do not fully understand what their emotions are, or how to deal with them. Fortunately, they have you there to guide them!