Never in the history of the world has anyone calmed down because they were told to calm down, and kids are no exception. I have three passionate kiddos*, so we are not strangers to the big feels, and we are not immune to catching big feels out in public.
Here are some sanity savers that I’ve learned in our decade plus of dealing with meltdowns:
1. They aren’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time.
Yes, even the one screaming about being denied a Snickers bar. It may feel as though they are trying to ruin your nearly-done grocery store trip, but truly, they are struggling in their own right. For me, remembering this changes the way I problem solve and my reaction.
2. In the words of Ace of Base: don’t turn around.
Don’t scan the crowd around you. Not because they’re all waiting with their pitchforks (although some rude soul just might be), but because this will only heighten your own anxiety, which brings the entire situation up a notch, as kids feed off of our energy. Just focus on the situation and what you want to do next.
3. Validation: sounds ridiculous, totally works.
“You are feeling really upset right now because you want to push your stroller up the hill, but you also want to sit in it,” I said like a robot, because no way was this going to work. I was desperate enough to try it, though, with the raging human starfish planted face-down on the side of the soccer field. “YES,” said a sniffly little voice, no longer screaming, slowly returning to standing I just stared in wonder. Validation worked that day, and many times after. And really, it’s not that crazy — don’t we all want to be heard, even at our most irrational? My son felt like I “got” him, and although I couldn’t accommodate his slightly insane request, I saw his frustration, and I spoke to that. My suggestion is to be as specific as you dare to be without guessing. Guessing is like tap dancing across landmines. But if you feel fairly confident you know what’s up, take the chance. “You’re upset” may not have the same soul-reaching abilities as, ohhh I don’t know, “You’re upset that Mommy won’t let you eat that light bulb.”
4. Grounding works, too.
No, not THAT kind of grounding: therapeutic grounding is a coping mechanism that brings you back to the present. If you can get their attention through the wailing and gnashing of teeth, try fives senses grounding: ask your kiddo if they can tell you five things they can see, four things they can feel/touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste (sometimes we skip this one, or find one thing around us that we like instead). They may resist at first, but this hits the mark for us a solid 9 out of 10 times. Feel free to adapt your child’s age allows: when my oldest was little and getting agitated, I would ask him to find trees or birds and point to them for me. Have them show you where their nose is, then your nose, their eyes, your eyes, etc. The idea is just to bring them back down to Earth.
5. Be considerate.
Before you roll your eyes, hear me out: I know there are some chores and errands that are unavoidable, appointments that have no regard for naps or mealtimes, but some things can be wiggled around a little, right? Try to be flexible, as much as is realistic, and work around rough timing and rough moods to save yourself time and stress. Don’t set yourself up for it unnecessarily.
6. Laugh it off.
If you don’t have a sense of humor about these moments yet…get one! I know it’s stressful at the time, I really do, but some of these meltdowns are now my family’s favorite stories. If we were all honest, it’d be acknowledged as a rite of passage in parenthood. Embrace the absurdity and have a giggle.
What about you: what are your tips for cooling a nuclear meltdown? Or even better — got a good tantrum story? Share in the comments!
*This post is in regards to children considered “neurotypical” and is in no way intended to dismiss or make light of those navigating behavioral or developmental challenges.