When Meltdowns Meet Mindfulness
Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could shift the narrative on how we view meltdowns? In most parents’ minds, a meltdown is a dreaded event, to be avoided at all costs. We can prevent most meltdowns by figuratively taking the temperature on how HOT a child is feeling in a particular moment. Begin by asking yourself, “How hungry, overstimulated, or tired is my child?” If we can address these needs before a meltdown begins, we’re in the clear. Our children stay cool, which means we also stay cool. There are times, however, when a 5-minute heads up doesn’t result in the smooth transition we hoped for and the choice between peas and broccoli (we’re empowering them to make their own decisions, right?) still results in food on the floor.
When we challenge ourselves to relate to our children as they experience some of life’s uncomfortable and unavoidable circumstances, a meltdown becomes an opportunity for connection.
Here are 4 strategies to help you connect in the heat of the moment:
This is happening right now. This acknowledgement allows us to work with our current situation rather than being pulled into the many layers of resistance we might add to it. We may wonder, “Why is this happening to me?” “Is this really happening again?“ The goal is to develop an awareness of these reactive thoughts, without judging ourselves for having them. When we accept the fact that this is happening right now, we have a greater ability to see a situation as it is, rather than all the ways we wish it was or wasn’t.
Tune in to what’s coming up for you. What does it feel like when your child is not complying with your request or not responding the way you hoped? Uncomfortable? Suffocating? Infuriating? The ability to feel our feelings plays a significant role in both our emotional and physical health. Are you experiencing any physical reactions? Do you feel hot around the ears? Tightness in the chest? A clenched jaw? Narrow focus in your vision? It sounds like we’re being threatened by an opponent, right? Except our opponent is 2.5 ft tall. Why do tantrums make us so uncomfortable? As parents, we rarely perceive a meltdown as just a meltdown. Oftentimes, it triggers a threat response within us and we become enflamed by our child’s outburst. We might take the tantrum personally as a direct reflection of our parenting, blame a child for not handling a situation more maturely, or worry that this behavior foreshadows a future version of an out of control teenager. Tuning in to some of our underlying beliefs allows us to question whether they are helpful or a hindrance to the way we perceive a situation.
Let’s remember that these little humans have not yet developed their prefrontal cortex, which is the part of their brain that helps regulate emotions and impulse control and houses executive functioning and logic You on the other hand, have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, so let’s put it to work. Imagine how frustrating it must be to live in a world where you want to do certain things, but are not able to- either because your body doesn’t yet have the skills or an adult is telling you it’s dangerous, not for young hands to play with, etc. Sometimes it simply doesn’t make sense to a child that she must leave the house “right now”. As you try to explain that a swim lesson begins in 15 minutes, your child may be busy negotiating gravity by balancing a block. “Why does it matter if I’m wearing pants or not?” Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that it’s truly their job to explore everything- from boundaries to emotions to physics. Naturally, there will be times when we have to guide our child to the door or into the bath to maintain a schedule. By keeping their perspective in mind, we can approach these moments from a place of understanding, which has an enormous impact on our connection.
Even though it might feel counterintuitive, there’s actually an opportunity to connect here- with yourself and with your child. Our children’s meltdowns trigger emotional and/or physical responses within us because we care so much. Holding that care with kindness and a healthy perspective takes practice. Try to take comfort in knowing that so many parents share the flared up feelings that a meltdown can ignite.
This moment can be their meltdown meeting your meltdown, or their meltdown meeting your mindfulness.
Is it possible to soften, release the tight grip, breathe, and check in with yourself? Ask yourself, “What is most important to me in this moment- to assert my control or open up to my child’s experience? What must this feel like for my child?” We generally can’t even get to this question if we haven’t taken a moment to tune in to our own emotions in some way. There’s no room and life is happening too quickly. Before we know it we’re in the midst of our own mini meltdown. Remembering how much we’re invested in these extensions of our hearts and letting go of our own agenda allows us to see and be with our children.
Can a meltdown actually be an opportunity for growth?
Many of us are functioning with a full load of responsibilities. When we haven’t given ourselves the time or space to consider what might be underneath our reactions, we may view our children and their behavior as problematic. However, parenting challenges provide us with opportunities to grow as individuals and establish empathy for our little ones. With a softened heart, we might actually be able to take in what they are trying to express to us, and recognize what was underneath the meltdown all along. Feeling understood is the ultimate connection. We can show our children that we “get” them with a warm hug, encouraging words, or staying close by and letting them know it’s ok to have big feelings if they need to release some tears. Though they may not have gotten what they wanted in the moment, they are left with something much more meaningful- our presence and understanding.