Fists clench. Ears turn red. Lips quiver. The tiny chest heaves to draw in a breath and then — “NOOOOOOOO!!”
When your child starts working up to a tantrum, those tell-tale warning signs can make an explosion seem expected, or even inevitable. But while a meltdown might seem predictable, it doesn’t have to be inevitable.
One of the reasons young kids have predictable meltdowns is simply because parents can set kids up by unintentionally “predicting” the meltdown. We see this happen particularly during common, everyday transitions, like getting ready to leave the house, cleaning up toys, mealtimes, or bedtime. Here’s how it often progresses:
- We tend to start from a position of power. Our tone of voice is often a bit “down-to-business” or even demanding. (“OK, It’s time to get out of the bathtub!”) Our kids don’t feel joined or affirmed for whatever it is they like about what they are doing. This becomes a predictor for a “me against you” scenario.
- When the child resists, we become anxious and more demanding in order to get control. (“Come on!…Hurry up!…I mean NOW!…You gotta get going!”) We raise our voices and furrow our brows, which can communicate that the child is “being bad.” This is yet another way of predicting a negative outcome.
- Our kids go on the defensive and respond the way kids respond when they feel threatened. They either resist (“No! I don’t wanna!”) or they ignore.
- We react strongly because we are afraid of losing control of the situation. (“This is not ok! You need to obey right away!”) At this point the child does the only thing she can to gain a sense of power: she cries or screams to fight back, thus fulfilling our prophecy of how we thought it would go.
Is this inevitable? No! We have found the following process of thinking about these situations extremely helpful in “predicting” a positive direction at these common transitions:
- Take a breath. Before getting started, remind yourself that this can go okay if you stay calm, but even if it doesn’t you can still be peaceful. This sets in your mind a prediction of your own success at staying calm and positive.
- Connect with your child briefly – get down on their level, speak gently, find something to affirm in what they’ve done so far that day. “You sure love the bathtub, don’t you?!” This calm start is inviting, and predicts safety and confidence.
- Give a simple step or choice to help them get started. “Ok, it’s time to get out now. Do you want to get out yourself or do you want me to lift you out?” This gives the child some power about how things will go and sets up further success rather than disobedience.
- Affirm their success. “Nice work, you did that really quickly!” Affirmation of even the smallest success paints a positive picture and becomes a predictor for further success.
Is this approach a magic pill? Of course not. There are always unforeseen complexities. But remembering and practicing these basics will set you on a better course with your kids.
If you have difficulty with transitioning your child out the door, to homework, to bed, or some other challenge, put a post-it up as a reminder with these four steps, and let us know how it goes!