As I mentioned previously, a child’s emotional meltdowns are often connected with change. This is especially true with children who have been traumatized. For many of them, the very thought of a change of routine can send them into a panic because they fear the unknown. I recall working with a young woman, age 21 in a residential setting for older adolescents. She was sent to an orphanage in Eastern Europe after her mother died. Subsequently she was adopted by an American couple at age three, and tragically suffered through a lot of trauma in her adoptive family until she left home at age 18. Even after leaving home, she was traumatized when she was sexually assaulted. She thus came to feel that the only person she could trust was herself. Her time in the residential center was therefore very rocky because almost every change in routine would send her into a meltdown. Even as a young adult, she bore the emotional scars of complex trauma. The only way she knew how to cope with stress and change was to go into meltdown mode.
How do we parent a child who has learned that the only person they feel they can trust is him- or herself? It takes a lot of time and a ton of patience. Here are some other common “meltdown-prone” scenarios and how we can approach them with our child:
1. Avoiding Bedtime Battles: Bedtime is a common meltdown time for many kids who have been traumatized. The origins of their bedtime meltdowns can often be rooted in fear (based on past experiences) or just a stubborn unwillingness to forfeit their will. My wife and I had some challenges in this area with our daughter. Her response was not a temper tantrum but a “crying meltdown” after we put her to bed. Why? It was because for the 18 months prior to our adopting her at age four, she lived in an orphanage and slept in a common room with many other little ones. To be in a bedroom all by herself in the dark was terrifying. Our solution was for my wife and I to tag-team lying beside her, singing to her and telling her stories until she fell asleep. This took the better part of a year, but it eventually worked. We continued this routine ongoing for several years, but the time we spent lying beside her when lights were out lessened as time went on and she became comfortable in a room at night by herself. Other strategies that can help offset bedtime meltdowns include reading books, giving backrubs, and talking about something fun that you will do together the following day.
2. Create a schedule and stick to it: Again, as I mentioned previously, children from traumatic backgrounds need predictability in order to feel safe and in control of their surroundings, thus preventing a meltdown. Schedule meals, snack times, recreation times, chore time, homework time and bed time during the same times each day. It can even help to post a simple, color-coded schedule in your child’s room and/or on the refrigerator they can refer to. Of course, there will be times you may need to deviate from the schedule—especially on weekends—but with all your effort do your best to stick to the schedule.
3. Finally, please know that despite your best efforts, meltdowns still happen—they just do. There will be days—especially in the first days, weeks and months that your child is with you—that you feel like the meltdowns will never end. They may never totally end but as you continue to stand your ground as a consistent, safe and loving dad or mom, you will see your child’s meltdowns become more infrequent.
I hope this series of blogs has been helpful to you! For additional resources on this topic, I highly recommend two “reader-friendly” books: The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross and From Fear to Love by B. Bryan Post. I also have a great list of helpful parenting books on the RESOURCE section of this website. Thanks for reading, and I welcome your feedback!