I’ve been talking a lot lately about how to stay calm and respond to your child when they are having a melt-down or expressing a big emotion. These are important tools to have in our parenting tool kit because melt-downs happen, and responding calmly and compassionately can make a huge difference. This week I want to shift our focus a little bit and talk about some steps you can take proactively to prevent melt-downs from happening in the first place.
Does this mean that you’ll be walking on eggshells, trying not to upset your child? Not at all. We’re going to take a supportive, problem solving approach to this, one that will let your child know that you’ve got their back and you want to help. It all starts with a little reflection.
Make a list of your child’s last five melt-downs.
This may take a few minutes, but I want you to take your time and call up at least five recent melt-downs that you’ve navigated with your child. Try to be specific about what triggered the melt-down without bringing in any judgement about your child’s motivation. If your child had a hard time disengaging from what they were doing when it was time to come to dinner, you might write, “Got upset when it was time to stop playing and come to dinner,” rather than “Couldn’t listen the first time and got mad when I took the toys away.” Can you see the difference? Try to stick to the circumstances rather than judging your child’s motivation or labeling the behavior you want to change.
Look for patterns.
When you start to pay attention to the circumstances that surround your child’s melt-downs, you can start to see patterns. Maybe your child has trouble shifting gears and transitioning from one activity to another. They could have a hard time seeking attention in appropriate ways (this is one we’re working on with my daughter, by the way). Perhaps they get discouraged or frustrated easily when trying to do something challenging. They might even feel overwhelmed by crowds, new people, or loud noises.
This is a critical step. When you identify a pattern in your child’s big emotional reactions, it does two things. It helps you see that there is some predictability to their melt-downs, and it gives you the information you need to begin to help your child solve the problems they are having.
Get specific about the problem you want to solve.
Let’s say you’ve noticed that your child tends to lose control of their emotions when you’re at the grocery store, when someone uses a hand dryer in the bathroom, or when you take them to an event with lots of other kids there. You suspect that the root of the issue is overwhelm, and you can see how it factors into each of your child’s recent melt-downs. Rather than talking about the big problem, we’re going to tackle one specific set of circumstances. When is this most challenging for you? Which situation needs to be resolved first?
Form several theories about your child’s experience.
In the next step, you’re going to start talking to your child about their experience. It’s important to understand that, try as we might, we can never know for sure what our child’s experience actually is. Usually, when we have a theory, we’re basing it on assumptions and we often miss the mark. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about what our children are experiencing, but it can be helpful to get in the habit of creating multiple theories. This is a useful practice because it helps you detach from the idea that you’ve got your child “figured out.” That, in turn, helps you approach the conversations you have with your child from a place of curiosity collaboration rather than entering them with a solution to deliver.
Start to talk to your child about it.
This step sounds simple, but is actually really tricky. Many of us are used to talking to our children about their behavior and how it needs to change, and that’s not what needs to happen here. This step isn’t about fixing a behavior, it’s about solving your child’s problem. The dialogue that you have needs to focus on what’s hard for them, and it needs to be proactive.
Choose a time when you and your child are both feeling calm and tell them you’d like to talk to them about something. Let’s say you’ve decided the melt-downs in the grocery store are the biggest challenge for you. You could say, “It seems like grocery shopping has been hard for you lately,” or “I’ve noticed you’ve been having a hard time at the grocery store lately.” You want to let them know that you see that they are having a hard time, not call them out on a behavior. Then follow up your observation with an affirming question, like, “Does that seem right?”
Practice active listening.
Encourage your child to talk by actively listening to what they are saying. If they are able to open up to you about their experience, reflect back what they are saying. The depth of the responses you get depends a lot upon your child’s age and the level of trust they have n the outcome of the conversation. Stay focused on learning more about your child’s experience rather than telling them what needs to change. You can use your theories to ask them probing questions if you need to. You might say, for example, “I’ve noticed that there are lots of people and a lot of things to look at in the grocery store. I wonder if you’ve noticed that too.”
Involve them in coming up with a solution.
Once your child gives you some indication or affirmation of what makes the grocery store such a challenging place for them, start to work on a solution. Ask them if there’s anything that they can think of that would make trips to the grocery store easier. Have a few ideas ready to go, just in case, but get their input first. They might say, “I just want to stay home and watch tv,” or “I wish we could just make it quieter.” Then you can use their input to come up with a solution that works for both of you.
Keep in mind that this process takes time.
It can take time for your child to open up to you. You may have to bring it up a few different times before you feel like you are making any progress. Just know that it’s normal. Try not to write your child off as too young or too stubborn. Engaging in this kind of dialogue and problem solving work is a skill, and it doesn’t just happen overnight. If you feel like your child might be too young, having several theories and solutions to offer is critical. This allows you to create opportunities for them to give you input without requiring them to put words to complex emotions before they are ready to.
Is your child overwhelmed?
Many Highly Sensitive Children have meltdowns when their nervous system is overwhelmed by too many stimuli. Our latest quick guide helps you recognize the signs that your child exhibits when overwhelmed and figure out what you can do to help them. Sign up below to claim your free guide.