While it isn't immediately obvious to us why a meltdown has happened, to our children, there has been a build up of emotion as a result of multiple stressors and those emotions need to be expressed NOW.
It's frustrating, because they always seem to a) happen in the most public place possible and b) happen at the most inconvenient times. It's always when we're rushing to an appointment, never on an easy Sunday afternoon - and there's probably a reason for that. Meltdowns aren't our kids just getting into bad moods - though things like hunger or a poor night's sleep can contribute. Our kids can pick up on our emotions. So if we're stressed and rushing, they're going to feel stressed and rushed also. Combine that with an over-stimulating environment like a busy street, as well as a poor night's sleep and you have the perfect storm for a meltdown.
Our knee-jerk reaction is 'Oh God, why now?'. But it's important to learn how to de-escalate these situations as much as possible so that a meltdown doesn't become their instant reaction when they're upset. Here are a few methods recommended for dealing with an overstimulated child.
Distraction is your best friend in this situation. If they’re having a meltdown over something they can’t have or an uncomfortable feeling, don’t give in, but deflect form the situation. Toys, an activity, a question about their favourite animal or place to go – whatever is right in front of them. Make sure to sound interested and excited by it, to keep their mind of whatever is bothering them as much as possible.
Give them personal space
Getting up in their faces, grabbing their hands or any other physical invasion is just going to make an overwhelmed child feel so much worse. Going to a park or somewhere with space and letting them run and shout out can let them express these emotions without hurting anyone. Let them know you see how they’re feeling by talking with them and giving them words for their emotions.
This is something you actually need to practice with them before tantrum ever happens. Learning breathing exercises together – something as simple as breathe in for the count of 4, hold for 4, release for 8 – can give them the tools to help calm themselves down later on when the tantrum is actually happening.
If you’re out in a restaurant, a busy store, a crowded sidewalk, try to slip away somewhere there’s a bit of peace and quiet. The last place we feel like breaking down is in public, right? All we want is the quiet of our bedroom. Our kids are the same. They can’t control these emotions taking them over right now and the extra noises and sights around them aren’t helping them to process it either.
Don’t yell back
Reacting to their distress with your own, or even with anger is only going to make the situation worse. They’re already feeling overwhelmed by whatever else is going on, and if you add to it – creating yet another stimulant, the tantrum will only go on for much longer.
Don’t say no
Telling them ‘no, you can’t do this here’ is rather pointless if it’s gotten to the meltdown stage. We know it always seems to happen at the most inconvenient of times, but they can’t help it. Once it’s started and the emotions need to be expressed, it’s not going anywhere until the emotions have been handled.
Talk feelings - not actions
If you can see a meltdown on the horizon or beginning, talk emotions with them. Validate their feelings – you must be tired, it’s been a long day/ you must be uncomfortable, there’s a lot of noise and action here – but don’t validate screaming, crying, aggression or any of the actions associated with a meltdown. That makes it okay for them to do it the next time.
Get on their level
Towering over them and talking down to them isn’t going to help. It may just distress them more. They feel alone, powerless and lacking in control. So hunkering down beside them is essential to make eye-contact, a powerful communication tool. It can anchor them into a conversation that will hopefully calm them down.
If the tantrum has been caused by saying no to something – a sweet in the shop, permission to do something, etc – stick to your decision, regardless of the tantrum it causes. Giving in teaches your child that throwing tantrums gets results and they’ll do it again next time they want something. But seeing that upsetting you and themselves accomplishes nothing will discourage the behaviour.