We dread them, we hate them, we get thrown off our game when they happen. Sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere. Sometimes we can see them coming. We all experience them as parents and I’ve yet to meet a parent who says “Hey, my kid’s having a meltdown. I just love it when that happens”.
All children have meltdowns. Some way more than others. Where do they come from and what can we do either to prevent them or, if we can’t prevent them, how do we help our children get through them?
Let’s look at what causes them.
- Physical causes: When a meltdown is on its way it’s always good to review physical causes first. They are the easiest to fix. Like all of us, children have less capacity to handle things when they are:
- Not feeling well
- Too cold or too hot
- Physically uncomfortable from too tight clothes or shoes, labels in clothes, wet clothes, or diapers, itchy clothes, etc.
- Emotional causes: Children, and babies, like us, are intense emotional beings. They experience the full range of emotions and they can, as you’ve no doubt observed, switch from one feeling to another in a split second. Not all feelings lead to meltdowns, but some definitely do:
- “Circumstantial” causes: Any change in a child’s circumstances can be unsettling. A move, visitors, new baby, family breakup, starting school, daylight savings time changes, travel, etc. all can throw children “off their game” for an extended time.
- Temperamental causes: Each child has a unique temperament. Some can just go with the flow, some react strongly to almost everything. A more sensitive or “high strung” child can get pushed into meltdowns more easily.
If you combine the physical causes with the emotional causes and throw in a change in life circumstances and a more “high need” temperament, the possibility of a meltdown increases enormously. A frustrated, hungry child, a scared, tired child who has just moved, an anxious child coming down with a cold. These are truly dynamite combinations which can explode into a full-scale meltdown.
So what to do?
- Control the physical causes as best you can. Carry a snack with you. Don’t keep your children anywhere too long if they are going to get tired. If you can, leave when you see the signs. If you see signs of a cold, stay home and try to have some quiet time rather than pushing your child into activities.
- Be alert to situations that can cause difficult emotions to rise up. If your child is immersed in play, give warnings and reminders that you will be leaving soon. If you see feelings emerging, identify them with words to your child so they get a “feelings vocabulary”.” I can see you are getting frustrated”. “I know it’s hard to leave sometimes and you are sad that we have to go”. “I can tell that you are angry that she took your toy.”
- Stay with your child and talk them through and even hug and hold them through those hard emotions.
- Recognize YOUR feelings and don’t allow yourself to join the meltdown. Meltdowns can get you very frustrated, and if its in public you experience shame. If you join the meltdown you are showing your children that falling apart is the way to handle feelings.
- Know that children can rarely control their meltdowns,
- Remember that sometimes we “lose it” and resort to yelling, throwing things, stomping our feet etc. We are all human.
Meltdowns are an inevitable part of children’s (and therefore parents’) lives. Getting a better understanding of what causes them will hopefully make them easier to handle.