When I first became a parent, I subconsciously thought that if I parented the “right” way my son would never have a meltdown.
I’d teach emotions!
I’d explain how attention to the breath and somatic awareness are ways of managing emotional intensity.
I’d model emotional intelligence by sharing my own feelings and taking responsibility for them.
We’d talk about how feelings are connected to needs.
All of this sounded really good and I could relax into being an emotional expert. Whew! I was in control.
Yet what was really happening was a subtle—yet powerful—belief system of mine had crept in and was calling the shots without me even knowing it. The belief: That if I just do everything right no one will have to feel any emotional pain—including myself.
My son has been an excellent “pointer-outer” that two year olds have meltdowns for all kinds of reasons, including, but certainly not limited to:
Wanting to wear pajamas, not wanting to wear pajamas; wanting to get dressed, not wanting to get dressed; wanting to walk instead of be carried, wanting to be carried instead of walk; having to get in the car seat, having to get out of the car seat; not being allowed to play in the street; and having to take a nap and go to bed at night, to name a few.
Add in being tired, and the meltdown is generally multiplied by the number of hours of sleep he needs.
When I can feel a meltdown coming on, I start to feel really tense and frustrated, and there is a sensation of dread in my belly that I know well. As I tune into this, I become aware that under my belief that I have to parent “right” there is another set of thoughts occurring.
A belief that is tearing me up inside: I must be doing it “wrong” or none of this would be happening! There is something wrong with me!
It’s these beliefs that are creating my emotional pain and shaping my responses to my son.
From this mindset I cannot be an effective parent because I’m too wrapped up in my own story about being damaged to be attentive to what my child is experiencing and needing. Even though pajamas might seem necessary to me, they are not to him.
His desire to be an independent person knows no limits and having to do anything without having a say is an example of his autonomy being threatened.
So, I had to bring all those beliefs back into the light and become aware that they were running the show.
My child will feel emotional pain, and so will I, regardless of how good of a parent I am or what strategies I employ. That is the nature of life. And, my son will have meltdowns—that is the nature of being two years old—and that is in no way an indicator of my self-worth or lack thereof.
All that said, the question remains: how do I deal with meltdowns? Keeping in mind that there is no right way, here are some suggestions that have helped me:
1) Use a meltdown as a mirror for our own beliefs. What are we thinking when our child is having a meltdown?
2) To quote Ben Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This rings true for working with meltdowns. Meeting our child’s basic needs for sleep, food, mental stimulation, attention, love, and exercise goes a long way towards minimizing meltdowns.
3) Teach our child about emotions. Name them. Express and take responsibility for our own. Normalize them.
4) If our child does enter meltdown mode, accept that. It probably means that whatever we had thought we were going to be doing is going to be postponed for a bit.
5) Stay connected to our child. Don’t leave him or her unless we are on the verge of losing our own temper. Resist the urge to control his/her emotions by shutting them down.
- Sharing what we see: “You really don’t want to put your jammies on.”
- Trying to understand our child needs: “It’s really important to you that you have a say about wearing your jammies.”
- Acknowledging feelings: “You seem sad. Is that true? I feel sad sometimes too. I’ll stay with you while you are sad.”
7) Be patient and breathe. The meltdown will run its course eventually.
Lately, after a meltdown my son has started saying, “Happy now.” I noticed my impulse was to respond, “Good!” I’ve had to be mindful of that as well, because by saying “good” I’m implying that his other emotions are “bad.”
So instead, I simply mirror back his process. “You were sad, and you cried, and after a little while you felt happy.”
He nods, and then it’s off to the next thing, like it never happened.
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Apprentice Editor: Marcee Murray King / Editor: Renée Picard
Illustration: Loverlorn Poets/Flickr