How to Survive a Grade School Child Meltdown

You may not know about these first hand.  You may have seen child-meltdowns before and thought the parents must not be doing a good job parenting, or that the child was way too old to act that way, or numerous other things.  What you may not know that this grade school child having a meltdown may have a variety of issues at hand:  ADHD, anxiety, Aspergers, mood disorder, etc.  An ADHD meltdown, and anxiety meltdown, and Aspergers meltdown and a mood disorder meltdown can look very similar if not the same.

These children look like every other child.  This child may be a stranger or you may have met this child.  What you may not know is that this child's dignity is important whether or not he or she has the capacity, coping mechanisms or even ability to handle what others may deem a "nothing special" situation.

Here is an example of a "nothing special" situation this morning.

SETTING:  It is time to leave for the Beggin' Strips Mardi Gras Dog Parade.  We have asked our child who has anxiety/attention/impulsiveness issues to get dressed, which she has done.  She is ready to go.  Upon seeing her, it is apparent that she is wearing the clothes she wore yesterday and she also happened to sleep in and that said clothing (besides being dirty) are not appropriate for the weather.

PARENTAL ACTION:  We tell her that she has on dirty clothes and that she needs to hurry up and change because it is time to go.  Further, she needs to wear x and y and z for the weather. 

CHILD ACTION:  Can you say M - E - L - T - D - O - W- N?!  Go on...say it! Imagine it! It is all the things you would think it would be.  It involved crying, flailing, raising her voice, arguing, defeatist language, inability to cope, etc.  Clearly not age appropriate, clearly out of the realm of "normal" reaction to something as simple as a request to change clothes.   

(The wrong thing to do in this situation is to think that this is a compliance/discipline issue.  It is not.  It is pretty easy to tell the difference to the parent but may be blurred to observers or those who have never experienced such meltdowns before.)

(In retrospect, perhaps the better way to do the Parental Action would have been to say, "Wow, Alia. You did a great job getting dressed so quickly!  But, because of the weather, we need to wear something different.  Do you want me to help you pick something else out?  That conversation may well have just turned into normal child resistance and not the meltdown it was.)

Here is the How to Survive a Grade School Child Meltdown part...

1.  Leave the room.  Breathe out and breathe in.  Make a promise to yourself right then and there to be committed to NOT escalating the situation.

2.  Conjure up all the compassion you can. Meltdowns are not fun for any party involved.  It does not feel good to be out of control for the child, and it does not feel good for a parent to lose one's temper.  Pull that compassion to the forefront, and realize there is a reason for this child's outburst. It may not be clear to you right then, but to the child, there is a method to his seeming madness.

3.  Call the child to you in the new space you are in.  Start with a hug.  This will help your child feel safe enough to open up to you even though the child is most likely experiencing rejection or anger or anxiety or overwhelming feelings or something of the like.

4.  Ask your child what the problem is.  Listen.  Create a safe place for her to let this information out. Do not be defensive or assert your reality over hers.  In our case, Alia felt that we threw 1,000 commands at her, and that it would take hours to comply with them, and she was bombarded and couldn't deal with all of this being thrown at her.  She also felt that here again, she was getting in trouble because we asked her to do too many things at one time.  Lastly, she said that only thing she can do in that situation is to scream. (She did let out a whopping howl when we first asked her to change!)

5.  Discuss a better way to communicate.  In our case, we said to Alia, "If you are feeling overwhelmed or that we are saying too many words or commands, or it seems impossible for you to do, please say, 'This is too much!' That way we know what is happening and we can try to help you.  If you don't let us know in an appropriate way with your words, then we don't know how to help you feel better."  You see, to us we asked one, little simple thing; to our daughter, all the steps involved in this were overwhelming and she took it all as being a criticism of her original choice to put on dirty clothes.  A codeword or phrase is a great way for a child to convey a message when words are failing.

6.  Make an appropriate solution in light of the problem.  In our case, we explained the weather conditions and offered to help her pick out something appropriate.  It was at this stage that she started to drop the high walls she had put up, and started to be more positive.

You may be thinking, good gods, what is the problem?  Whip that girl into shape and have her change her clothes!  If that is your thought, then you do not have any idea what kind of meltdown I am referring is outside the realm of "normal" response and is into the area where the child needs help managing an onset of emotions that are currently controlling her ability to respond and calm down.  It has the potential to get really bad before it gets any better.  This we want to avoid.  It damages the child.  Let me repeat:  It damages the child. 

Our job as parents is to help our children who have ADHD, anxiety, Aspergers, mood disorders, coping issues or whatever you want to call it...our job is to help them regulate this stimuli, help them with tools and tricks to calm down and regain control, and most importantly, model how to do this by exhibiting control of our own emotions in response to the meltdown.

It is hard work.  This, I know.  It is hard to parent the right way, to not be caught in the moment, to accept the judgements of others who have no clue, to brave the stares, or the disbelief.  It isn't easy but it is what we are called to do as parents.


Anonymous said…
Read Tiger Mother today. I think what you should have done is scream at the top of your lungs and threaten to burn all her stuffed animals. ;) Yes, that's actually a scene from the book.