I rarely buy my children things “just because” but I had been at a second hand store and found a bunch of little toy planes I thought they’d love, so I got them two each, and put them on their car seats as a surprise for when I picked them up from school. At first they were so excited and grateful and quickly clipped into their seats, an elaborate make believe game already forming in the back of the car before we’d even left the school. I smiled, imagining a joyful afternoon playing with the planes, building airports and having adventures.
However, it was not to be. A few minutes into the drive home, my daughter noticed that one of the tiny wheels on the front of one of her planes was missing. “Oh well,” I said hopefully, “You can still fly it.” No. I could see her tense up, her voice changed. She very quickly went from being relaxed and happy to tense and annoyed. She asked to see her brother’s wheels. None were missing. “Uh oh,” I thought. This won’t be good news.
Bigger Issues Underlie A Child's Meltdown
My daughter had been struggling with fairness lately, and had many upsets over the past few weeks about things that weren’t fair, particularly where her older brother was concerned. Their drinks needed to be evenly filled to the millimeter, or it wasn’t fair. The cake slices had to be measured out precisely, or it wouldn’t be fair. I couldn’t sit closer to her brother, or it wouldn’t be fair. Unwittingly, I had just committed a huge crime in the “fairness” scale of her mind, by giving her brother the plane with the wheel, and her the one without. If I had noticed beforehand, I probably would have switched it, knowing my son would be a bit more resilient with this. But, I hadn’t noticed, and she felt hard done by.
She started off telling me in a whining and frustrated tone that hers had a broken wheel and her brother’s plane didn’t, and that wasn’t fair. I responded as best I could while driving, saying I was sorry she had the broken wheel, and I tried to reason again, that it would still be OK to play with. But she was not having anything to do with my reasoning.
She started screaming, “It’s not fair, he gets everything better than me! I never get what I want!” In her rage and crying she even yelled, “You don’t love me as much!” I knew then that we wouldn’t make it home before my child's meltdown was full blown. The floodgates had opened, and there was no stopping the torrent of tears, kicks, screams, and insults. My son, with her in the backseat, was having a hard time too. It was loud, and he was in the firing line of whatever my daughter could lay her hands on. I knew I had to pull over as there was still another 15 minutes of driving ahead of us. Luckily I found a quiet horse paddock to stop next to.
Taking a Moment to Hear the Feelings
I got out of the car and came around to my girl’s side, opened the door and reached out to her, looking into her tear-filled eyes, a gentle hand on her knee. Her body went rigid again and she kicked out at the seat in front. Her face was red, her hairline sweaty and cheeks tear stained. I let my son know I planned to listen, and that he could get out of the car. He’d seen this happen before, and quite happily wandered over to the fence to look at the horse, leaving us to it.
More on the benefits of tantrums here,
“10 Reasons Your Toddler's Tantrum Is Actually a Good Thing.“
Through listening, you are the anchor in your child’s meltdown
I re-focused on my daughter, knowing that her emotional storm needed an anchor of connection and safety. Since I had witnessed my child's meltdown like this before, even though it was intense, I knew she would come through it. I didn’t always have this conviction, but seeing it happen many times has given me confidence that listening to our children when they’re this way truly is the most helpful thing. A child's meltdown is also usually the quickest way to heal the upset. If I had tried to distract her with food, or console her with promises of getting another toy, the upset feeling would just have been prolonged. She would have found another pretext to trigger the rest of her tantrum.
We must have stayed on the roadside for about 15 minutes as I listened to my chlid's meltdown. She didn’t want to get out of her seat, rather she used the confined space to safely push and kick. Toward the end, her raging turned to deep ragged breaths and then soft sobs. She let me gently take her out of her seat and hold her in my arms. She relaxed into me, holding me close.
After a few moments, she sniffed away her tears and asked to go and see the horse. We went together to have a look, then I asked my children if they were ready to go home. They agreed and we drove home in peaceful silence. The toy planes were taken out of the car when we got home, put on the bench and forgotten! My children went and played another game, happily sharing and creating adventures all afternoon.
Feelings build up and overflow
My daughter’s meltdown was triggered by the toy plane’s missing wheel, but the feelings she shed went much deeper, and were probably not related to the broken toy at all. When our children get really upset over seemingly minor issues, it can be confusing and frustrating. However, when we can think of the minor issue as a pretext, an excuse to have a big cry, we can recognize how smart they are. They know they need to get those big feelings out of the way, so they can feel us close again. They don’t want to be difficult and unreasonable. The big feelings brewing inside cause discomfort. A child's meltdown is needed to get them out to feel good again.
When we listen, we support this process of releasing the uncomfortable feelings. We provide the safety they need to let go of these feelings fully. They need us to partner with them, as they cannot do this on their own.
Feelings Build Up
The feelings build up because no matter how loved and cared for our children are, they will have some experiences that don’t sit well with them. The small hurts accumulate into a big chunk of emotional tension, sitting inside their minds. This tension causes our children’s good thinking, flexibility and ability to listen to reason to temporarily disappear. Distracting them, demanding they listen to reason, suppressing their feelings or even punishing them leads to further tension, and greater challenges.
When a child is full of upset, any little thing can tip them over the edge. My daughter felt it was unfair that she had the broken toy, and maybe rightly so. But instead of being able to listen to reason, she melted down. Most likely she was recalling all the other times she felt unfairly treated, and it all came rushing out. She also needed to have a few more good cries after this incident to clear the tension she was feeling around things being unfair. When the hurt is bigger, our children may need to cry multiple times about the same thing. They are being smart when they set up times they can cry. With good listening, warmth and connection, the feelings can be heard, and the emotional tension can be shed at last. Then a child can think well again, cooperate and be good company.
What happens when we want to have our own meltdown?
It can feel scary, overwhelming, and frustrating when we witness our children melting down. It’s hard to know what to do because, chances are, we’ve had little experience with listening to big feelings. Our parents most likely did not have the ability to listen to us well. There’s no one to model how it is done. We can find ourselves feeling alone, angry, and judged. A child's meltdown can provoke the rockiest moments in our parenting.
To listen well, and to view our child’s meltdown differently, we need good emotional support ourselves. Our own feelings need to be heard. Establishing a Listening Partnership with another parent is a powerful way to gain this valuable support. When we have a place to go with our own feelings, there’s less chance of us losing it with our children.
Listening is healing
Working through our own emotions brought up by our parenting experiences paves the way for generational healing. When we can listen to the feelings of our children and provide the emotional safety that turns a child's meltdown into a healing experience, then we open to door to a profound sense of connection, well-being, and to a much more peaceful child.