A good friend of mine was a former headmaster at an exclusive private middle school in the Atlanta area.
One day he had to suspend a student for three days for violating a school policy. The day after the suspension, the student’s mother appeared at my friend’s office door as soon as the building opened. She was livid, and shouted “How dare you suspend my son, what he did was not the end of the world—kids here do a lot worse things than what he did! And besides, I pay a lot of money for him to attend here and I will not tolerate you kicking him out of school for three days!” As the mom continued to escalate and threaten to have him (the headmaster) reprimanded, my friend recalled feeling the blood begin to rise in his neck. Fortunately, he recalls checking himself internally as he was on the verge of “really giving it back to her.” As he checked his emotions, he remembers the thought coming to him, “I wonder what’s really bothering her today?” This allowed him to respond to the mom calmly and objectively without taking on her stress as his own.
Parents, I realize that our children’s meltdowns often seem to happen too quickly for us to analyze their behavior. And, we really don’t need to analyze it. However, as with my headmaster friend, we must always keep in mind that “seldom is the problem the problem.” I also liken meltdowns to what is called the “Iceberg Effect”—only 10 to 20 percent of what we see is “above the waterline.” It’s typically the unseen 80 to 90 percent below the water that can sink the ship, and it’s also that unseen/internal 80 to 90 percent that typically fuels our child’s meltdowns.
With the above in mind, today I’ll address some strategies for PREVENTING meltdowns.
1. Remembering that many meltdowns are very often fear-based, because a previously traumatized child’s greatest fear is losing control of their circumstances. Thus, it is very important to give your child advance notice when changes in routine will happen. This can be something as simple as getting ready for bedtime (picking up toys, brushing teeth) or more involved such as leaving your child with a sitter. Undoubtedly some of you have experienced your child “losing it” over one or more of these scenarios. Provide your child with an advance-notice, step-by-step script for anticipating the changes—especially the ones that trigger his or her “meltdown button.” You can say as you point to the hands on the clock, “in fifteen minutes we will be leaving for school;” then give follow-up ten-minute and five-minute alerts. Children from traumatic pasts need structure and predictability in order to feel safe, and to give them a healthy sense of control over their surroundings.
2. For children who have previously been denied food, the time preceding and during meals can be stressful for both your child and you. The child’s fear of not having enough can ramp up his anxiety to the point that he has a meltdown. You can counter this through a number of approaches: a) When he shows anxiety, open the refrigerator and let him see and be reminded that there is plenty of food for him. b) Let him have a healthy snack (fruit, energy bar, etc.) between meals. c) To help prevent food hoarding in his room, put a small basket of a few healthy (and insect-proof!) healthy snacks on his bedside table so he knows he can have a snack at night if he gets hungry.
3. Offer compromises—please hear me out on this one! This does not mean you are giving in—instead you are just manipulating the circumstances to avoid the stress of your child having another meltdown. You are still in charge. Let’s say your child begins to whine and complain (I call this behavior the “pre-tantrum”) when you ask her to take her shower and brush her teeth prior to bedtime. You can initially respond by stating, “You know that whining about it is not acceptable, right? (Make eye contact with her when saying this). But I tell you what, we can play a game for five minutes either before or after you take your shower and brush your teeth. Which do you want to do?” Again, this type of compromise does not mean you are giving in to your child. Its’ intent is to simply diffuse a “pre-tantrum” and re-direct your child toward obedience.
More to come next week . . .