All kids have meltdowns. Some kids fly off the handle, and lose the ability to process anything complex (including language!) around them. Other meltdowns may appear mild to the outsider, but to mom or dad are distressing. Some kids go through phases of extreme meltdowns, followed by periods of relatively few disasters. But all kids have them.
Where does language fit into this?
When your child is overloaded, the first thing to go are the higher cognitive processes (like language and executive functioning/problem-solving abilities). This means that your child is going to have a much harder time understanding what you are telling them, using words to express themselves, or problem-solve to come up with a solution. So, not only is your child tired, hungry, or on sensory overload, but they have even fewer coping strategies than pre-meltdown.
It’s a signal to reset and recharge. Just like adults, kids get overloaded, overwhelmed, and over-tired. Dealing with stressors is natural part of life, and we can teach our children positive ways to handle them. We can also be on the lookout for times when we can avoid or decrease the meltdown, both in frequency and intensity.
Here are 10 ways to avoid or decrease these meltdowns in your child:
1) Eat healthy. Avoid high sugar and salt in your child’s diet. We have heard about the ups and downs that come from a sugar rush. Be very aware of what you are having your child put in his body. It is as powerful as medicine!
2) Run one or two errands at a time. For the sake of efficiency, I always want to try to group my errands into one big blast of shopping mayhem. But most children under 5 can only handle about two stops before needing a break. Many children get sensory overload from shopping malls and grocery stores. Try and recognize their need to take a break.
3) Use positive reinforcement. When your child is doing a good job of managing a tiring situation, build them up. Let them know that you recognize their perseverance. I try to recite the mantra in my head: “Ten praises for every one criticism.”
4) Get regular exercise. Like food, exercise is medicine for the body. It will help your child regulate their emotions and behavior. It will also help them decompress. In my neighborhood, it is common to see entire families out for a walk in the evening. It’s a great way to de-stress for kids and for parents.
5) Establish a soothing, quiet space where your child can be alone. A calm space can be a bedroom, a special place in the backyard, or even a space in a closet. Depending on your child’s needs, make this a serene environment by using cool colors, comforting textures, and quiet. (For your child, “quiet” might be total silence, white noise from a fan, or soothing music.)
6) Maintain a routine. Meltdowns can often be a signal that your child is getting overwhelmed by choices or uncertainty. A regular set of expectations can provide the structure to get back on track.
7) Get enough sleep. It’s hard in the summertime to get your children to bed on time! It’s still light outside when my daughters head to bed in the Pacific NW. Blinds and blackout curtains can help with this, and a fan for white noise (to drown out the high school students down the road!) can help your child drift off to sleep. Again, it goes back to routine, and sleep is a large part of your daily schedule.
8) Use signs, gestures, and facial expression to communicate with your child. When your child is on the precipice of a meltdown, it’s time to scale your language way back. Try leading your child to a quiet corner, get down to their eye level, and use as few words as possible to bring them back around. Your eyes and smile can speak more than a thousand words, and chances are, your child will be better able to process the feeling of warmth and understanding rather than your words.
9) Give your child an outlet for their energy. Summer is a great time for playing in the pool, running through the sprinklers, shrieking and letting loose. Make sure your child has access daily to such freeing pursuits.
10) Prep your child ahead of time on what to expect, and recap afterwards on how they handled the situation. You can build your child’s language around a situation. In the heat of the moment, during a meltdown, your child may not be able to use their words to express themselves. Helping them decompress at a later time can also help them build language scripts to problem-solve during tricky situations. Give them some strategies on what to do during a stressful time. For example: “I could tell you were really tired at the grocery store this morning. You did a great job of breathing slowly and asking Mom for a snack to get through it. I liked how you used your words ~ ‘Hey Mom, I’m feeling tired!’ ~ to tell Mom how you were feeling.” Help them identify their emotions (frustration, anger, etc.) so they can better use language to manage the situation.
One last note…
Don’t forget, you are their model! How you manage your meltdowns can be helpful to your child. “Mommy needs to take a break because she is getting frustrated.” Identify your emotions verbally so that your child can learn to map language onto what they feel.