My son, T, turned three last year, and I breathed a sigh of relief as we shifted into a new stage of development with fewer meltdowns and more problem-solving. Toddler meltdowns are common, but I felt unprepared (he is my second child) to be managing meltdowns as his were much more powerful than my daughter’s ever were.
I felt powerless as I tried time-outs, positive reinforcement, and other strategies. I am a Speech and Language Pathologist– I specialize in regulation professionally, and yet I couldn’t get a grip on what to do next with my son. I felt like I was floundering in the storm.
Just after T turned two, I started doing a TON OF RESEARCH and a TON OF READING. For some reason, although I specialize in developing calming (aka, regulation) plans with school-age children, I was unable to connect my knowledge and experience with my situation. (There’s a reason for this too, and maybe you’ve noticed it! Parenting can activate your limbic system a little differently than other activities, which is why it’s important to know your triggers as a parent- because these triggers may result in you responding from a different place than you might professionally).
I realized that I was leaving T alone in the storm of his meltdowns to ‘figure it out’. Two and three-year-olds don’t have brains that can ‘figure it out’ alone.
I realized that instead of having him weather the storm alone, I could weather it with him (in the therapy world we call this co-regulation). Our kids learn to self-regulate (calm themselves) after receiving enough input and support on how to do that. Two to three year-olds still need to learn from us how to calm themselves. Managing meltdowns was something I would need to teach him. I needed to start seeing my son where he was and meeting him there.
Some strategies I’ve found helpful for managing meltdowns when T is having a hard time and could benefit from co-regulation:
- I sit next to him (or near him) instead of having him sit by himself.
- I stay quiet and avoid the temptation to lecture on the facts of the situation (hey, so what we couldn’t find the maroon jacket, it doesn’t mean that you don’t like it)
- Offer calming hugs or reassurance when he is ready (remember when babies are little and upset, we rock them?)
- Listen to my child and acknowledge his feelings
- Encourage him to problem solve when calm (the inevitable ‘banana break’ happened this morning- and I had him problem solve what to do → he stuck it back into the peel and ate it out of the peel, happy as a clam!)
- Remind myself to keep my loving limits- I can love my child and also have limits.
- Once the storm passes, and we are both calm, I talk with T in developmentally appropriate ways about how to stay calm. Words such as ‘Being mad is ok; hitting isn’t safe,’ or, ‘Being frustrated is normal; throwing things is dangerous’ work well.
A great example of this- the other morning my son REALLY wanted to wear his maroon jacket. We couldn’t find it. He had to wear a blue one instead and, let’s just say it was a big deal to him.
I used my C.O.A.S.T. method (Check-in with yourself to stay calm, Observe and Acknowledge, Support & Teach).
You’re stomping your feet; I wonder if you’re mad. You like that blue jacket!
Through tears he said ‘yes!’ I then said ‘That’s hard. That blue jacket is so soft (pause). Do you think a monkey would wear it?’ He giggled (being silly with toddlers & preschoolers is the key to making connections) and the emotional storm passed.
I’m seeing more and more of a need to really listen, and see our kids as they are, moment to moment. Heck- we need this for ourselves! This is never more true than during this pandemic and will be true long after the pandemic has passed.
Being heard and seen when we have upset feelings is one of the fastest ways to calm down and center. Being heard and seen is key to managing meltdowns. In my experience, being ignored is one of the fastest ways to increase frustration and anger.
I want to instill kindness and a gentle hug (for anyone wanting one) in this journey to support our children and their big feelings. Managing meltdowns isn’t easy. In fact- it’s quite challenging. So I’m here, ready to stand with you as we support the next generation to be a generation of leaders and empathetic listeners. Let’s do this. Let’s stand in the storm with our children.