Turning Morning Meltdowns into Happy Starts

Turning Morning Meltdowns into Happy Starts

Your child might be one of the kids who struggle to wake up on the “happy side of the bed.” One day your little darlin’ is sweet as can be, but the next day you sense it will be Meltdown Morning. On other days your child might be sluggish and difficult to rouse. Some kids often start the day in meltdown mode until they get a decent breakfast. But the challenge of getting them to the table to eat can be overwhelming. When our days start off rocky, sometimes it is difficult to regain our sense of balance, but it is possible.

How Will My Child Awake This Morning?

I’ve heard many parents express their anxiety – Which child will greet me this morning? Remember….kids don’t wake up and consider – Do I want to make life easy or miserable for my parents today? Children with erratic behavior may have sensitive nervous systems that magnify lots of different stressors – how they slept, how over-stimulating their previous day might have been, what they ate yesterday, what their emotional stressors are (i.e. anxiety about school), etc. Their nervous system is delicately balanced and it takes very little to get them dysregulated.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

A starting place is to recognize what it’s like to be your child. When kids are prone to dysregulation in the morning, their sensory perception of the world is often intense and unpleasant – their clothes might feel awful, sounds might be harsher, your coffee breath might be overwhelming. They probably feel agitated, stressed, and out of control. When kids feel this way a natural coping strategy is to attempt to control those around them in order to feel a little more sane.

Parents who are willing to experiment with ways to help their child feel better and regulate (stabilize) their stressed nervous systems will make life easier for all.

Let’s look at how the Connected Families Framework messages can help these kids:

  1. You are SAFE with me: If a child senses your anxiety about her mood, it creates a spiral of anxiety and tension between you. So remember – morning challenges do not mean that you are a bad parent or your child is a bad kid! If you shift to a goal of solving the underlying problems instead of controlling behavior, your child senses you are for her not against her. This makes a huge difference as you engage more peacefully and your child feels safe with you.  
  2. You are LOVED no matter what: Humor and affection can do a lot to ease kids’ anxiety and stress in the morning. One dad said, “If I could get Anders laughing, the whole morning went better.” I often roused our sensitive daughter with a silly little rap I’d made up, that started with “You’re my girly-girl-girl, whom I lovey, love, love… The whole thing took less than 10 seconds but it really helped because it intensely communicated, “You are loved and enjoyed!”
  3. You are CALLED and CAPABLE: Problem-solving your morning challenges with your child communicates he is capable of figuring out what he needs in order to be successful. So at a non-stressful time, discuss: When things go better in the morning – what does Mom or Dad do that’s helpful? What do you do that makes your morning better? How could we all do those things more often? 
  4. You are RESPONSIBLE: When your child chooses an activity you can say, “You listened to your body telling you what it needed this morning.”  Then celebrate and talk about it, “When we take care of our bodies in the morning it helps us have such a great day! You’re learning how to help your body feel better so you can do your best.” This meets that need for healthy power and builds an identity of independence and responsibility.

Additional ideas to communicate, “You are CALLED and CAPABLE”:

  1. Pay attention to cues: Be a listener and a student of your child as you develop practical ideas together for your mornings. When you find sensory activities that are a good match for your child’s needs, his sensitivity to the activities will make them powerfully helpful. Your day will start much better if you can figure out how to work with your child’s sensitivity instead of against it.*  
  2. For younger kids who need to be empowered in a concrete way, you can draw simple pictures or take photos of your child doing helpful morning activities (see below), and let him choose from a few options. Problem-solving together or offering a few picture choices to help kids’ bodies feel better provides the “healthy power” kids need in order to not need to meltdown or control others.) Here are a few ideas to get you started:
    • Blood sugar/hydration: A drink with electrolytes first thing in the morning can really help kids if they are sluggish – what it does for muscles it can do for the brain. Similarly, if your child frequently struggles until she eats breakfast, try greeting her with a light snack or a little fruit in the morning, to get enough nutrition in her system to get through the morning routine. It made a huge difference for one family to simply shift breakfast to the first thing in their routine.
    • Massage can make a big difference in the morning, even if it’s just a one-minute back rub. If your child doesn’t like massage, see the Sensory Input Techniques demonstration video for lots of ideas. Whatever you do, be sure to make it affectionate and fun.  
    • Big, fun muscle activities are powerful “regulators” for dysregulated kids. Lift a small child by the hands and bounce her to the bathroom or kitchen table. Or challenge your child to get where he needs to go by jumping like a frog or hopping on one foot. Make a game out of hiding their socks and get kids going up and down the steps as you give clues.
    • Music: Does your child need to be calmed or energized in the morning? What kind of music could help do that?

My Response:

  • How could I help my child feel safe and loved in the morning?
  • What stands out to me in this list of sensory-based ideas?
  • How could I engage my child in figuring out what his body needs, so he can feel good and be successful in the morning?

* An important tip: Do not command kids when they are struggling to use sensory strategies, because your intensity will probably increase their stress, not relieve it. Instead, stay calm as you do plenty of modeling of calming strategies yourself. You can gently invite your child to do anything they think would help them feel better (“i.e. If you want, you can…”), and then give lots of encouragement for any small helpful efforts. 

Raising an intense child?

We get it. We’ve been there. Sometimes prioritizing your child’s sensory system can jumpstart your family’s journey to peace. That’s why we offer our FREE online course, 7 Practical Calming Strategies for Kids.


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Lynne Jackson
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