Meltdowns certainly happen to kids of any age, but they are most prevalent in kids between two and four years of age. A meltdown can include any combination of crying, screaming, flailing on the floor, and other cringe-worthy moments.
If your child has a meltdown when you’re out, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t know that child at all, that’s not my kid!” The truth is that usually a meltdown is more of a problem for the parent than it is for the child.
All kids have tantrums from time to time, although it is more common with strong-willed kids. It’s important to remember that young children may not have the verbal skills to articulate their problem, causing frustration and, ultimately, a meltdown. And even if the verbal skills are there, they just might not yet have the vocabulary they need to express how they’re feeling.
Why do kids have meltdowns?
The possible reasons are limitless! They’re overtired. They may be hungry. They may be bored. Overstimulation is another reason kids feel this way. Shopping, for example, can be a real high-voltage, industrial-strength kind of activity. It’s the perfect recipe for a meltdown.
The world of a child is about exploring, but children often lack the motor skills to be able to do what they want to do. This is frustrating for them. They don’t have control of their lives (nor should they) and they just want to feel independent and in control.
Are you going to be out for a long time? Will your child get to take a nap? Is it time to eat? Kids just don’t have the regulation to be able to wait and be patient, and that’s often why we see them have these complete meltdowns. They’re frustrated, they’re disappointed, they can’t have what they want. They become angry and they just don’t know how to express themselves in a healthy manner.
Dealing with Meltdowns
As with yourself, identifying the triggers for a meltdown is an important part of preventing one from taking place.
When does it happen? Does it happen when you’re in a restaurant? Is it always a public place? If you’ve ever been in a public place and this has happened, you can feel everyone’s eyes boring into your back, staring at you and waiting to see how you’re going to handle it. And that makes it seem 100 times worse.
What should I do?First, think about safety. Some kids will throw things, and we want to prevent them from hurting themselves or falling down, because they’re out of control. And then as parents, we want to handle it in a very calm manner. Parents need to model the behavior that they desire from their children. Take a deep breath, get a hold of yourself, and remain calm. Show your child—and others around you—that you have it under control.
What else should I do? If you’re out in a public place, you want to gather up your child and validate his or her feelings right there. “I understand that you want to have a candy bar, but we can’t have that right now.” And that’s not always easy to do.
Give yourself a little pep talk. Say, “I’m a strong, competent parent” to help yourself get through it as well. If you’re in a grocery store, you go to a quiet aisle where you can get your child back on course.
Don’t give in! Some kids remember, “Oh, the grocery store, that’s where I threw a tantrum last time and it worked.” Giving in to a tantrum leaves your child with one lesson: “I can get away with this, and I’m going to do it the next time we’re here.” You may need to leave your grocery cart—and the store—to diffuse the situation.
Prepare your child in advance. Set limits for the day, like, “You can choose one toy.” Or, “We’re just shopping for your friend’s birthday gift today.”
Helping children identify the reasons for their feelings of frustration is a major step toward minimizing meltdowns. Dr. Marc Brackett at The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has developed the RULER method as a way to educate people of all ages about developing their emotional intelligence (also known as EQ). Here’s a basic breakdown of what RULER is all about.
Recognizing. What’s going on here? What am I feeling right now?
Understanding. What are those emotions?
Labeling. What is the name of that exact emotion? (e.g., “I’m feeling resentful.”)
Expressing. Teaching parents (and kids) to express their emotions in different ways.
Regulating. Being able to understand and control your own emotions in a socially acceptable way.
Incorporating some of these strategies when your child melts down can really help set the stage for a future of fewer meltdowns and more positive experiences for both of you!
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.