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TRANSITIONS AND MELTDOWNS . . How to Help Our Children (part 2 . . .)

In my previous blog, I explained how--for children from traumatic backgrounds--that transitions in daily routine can lead to major meltdowns. To us parents some of these meltdowns can defy logic in light of the seemingly insignificant (to us) schedule and routine changes that trigger the meltdowns. I recently worked with a foster mom & dad who shared with me that their 4-year- old threw a major fit when they picked her up one hour earlier than usual from daycare to go to an appointment. Actually, it was more than just a major fit—it was a World War 3-level meltdown. While screaming at the top of her lungs, the child somehow wiggled herself out of her car seat and tried to open the door of their minivan to jump out. This was accompanied by some language (from the little girl) that would have made a truck driver blush. Her parents had to pull over to the side of the road and physically restrain the little girl. I could share numerous

other stories like this where the child’s reaction to change and transition far exceeded the nature of the transition.

To follow up on my previous blog, let me say again that for most foster and many adopted children CHANGE=SCARY. Their meltdowns are largely motivated by stark fear rather than just oppositional behavior. It makes no sense to us. It makes a lot of sense to that child whose’ previous life in his/her biological home was ruled by anarchy and chaos. Change was constant—changing houses, changing schools, changing caregivers (some of them scary and abusive), changing family members (new siblings coming into the picture, thus re-arranging the “pecking order”) and on and on . . . It’s crazy-making for these kids because there’s no stability and predictability. For all human beings, control of our environment is a primal, innate survival need. This is why a child coming out of an out-of-control environment will battle his/her new parents over seemingly minor issues like brushing his teeth, taking a bath, going bed, putting on his heavy coat in the winter, and coming to the dinner table.

Helping a child feel safe amidst transitions takes time. In the meantime, yes, the meltdowns will happen periodically. Here are some additional helpful approaches for parents when your child is in the midst of a meltdown:

  • Remain calm and take deep, easy breaths. Encourage your child to try and do the same


  • Don’t take your child’s behavior or language personally! The meltdown is all about him or her, not about you


  • Try to place yourself on the child’s physical level, but at a safe distance


  • Avoid getting into a verbal power struggle—you will lose every time


  • Avoid saying “no” – this will “amp up” your child all the more


  • Offer a change of scenery or a distraction: “Let’s go outside for a walk”


  • Finally, when the meltdown is over, ask the child “What do you need?” This allows her to verbalize her feelings and needs. Offer a drink of water or a healthy snack. Let her know you are there for her, that you lobe her no matter what, and that she is safe in your care


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