When your child has a tantrum or meltdown, it’s not because she wants to be difficult or bad. Learn to respond instead of reacting to difficult situations, and you’ll defuse tantrums and meltdowns with love.
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“Mom. I have to go to the bathroom. Can Gray take me? Gray, take me to the bathroo-wait a minute. Where’s Gray?!?”
My seven-year-old was a time bomb in a crowded grocery store, and I had 15 seconds to defuse her.
Her toddler brother was curating M&M packets.
“Umms, mommy? Buy dese umms?”
“No buddy, not right now,” I mumbled.
From the checker: “It’s waiting for your signature, ma’am.”
I looked across the mini-mall hallway. Gray was browsing a table at the indie toy store.
I fumbled with the electronic pen.
“She’s not missing. She’s across the hall.”
8, 7, 6
“Gray??? Mom, we have to find her. I don’t see her. What do you mean she’s across the hall?!?”
“Mommy! Buy dese umms!”
“You can remove your card now.”
“GRAY?!?!? GRAY!!!!! MY SISTER IS GONE!!!! WHERE IS MY SISTER?!?! SHE’S BEEN KIDNAPPED!!! SOMEBODY TOOK HER. WHERE IS MY SISTER?!?”
Heads turned. The kiddo fled. Cheeks burning, I pried three fists full of M&Ms from the toddler, dropped him in the cart, and followed the wailing. We had five minutes to get to the car, stow the groceries, and head across the street to the doctor’s office.
I knew they would be fighting.
I knew my kiddo would still have to use the bathroom.
I knew she would fight me if I asked her to wait a little longer.
I had a choice to make. Would I react to the situation and let stress get the better of me, or would I take a deep breath and respond?
The Psychology of Response: Gifted Parenting Edition
Heightened sensitivity. Anxiety. Sensory issues. Asynchronicity. Delays. Gifted children are a complex amalgam of challenge and potential, a combination which lends itself as much toward magnificent meltdowns as it does grand discoveries. We’re now eleven years into this gifted parenting gig, and I’ve handled more explosive incidents than I care to admit. But I’ve also learned a thing or two about what triggers meltdowns in my children and myself.
Fortunately, I’ve developed a few coping techniques.
First, I think it’s helpful to understand the psychology of response.
The human brain is wired to respond to stimuli: to take in information, process it, and decide how to proceed from there. Our responses are often immediate, especially when we are tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. It takes much less effort to react without pausing, and so we snap out of frustration or spite.
But what if instead of reacting, we took a moment to step back and respond?
It’s the kind of behavior we want to see in our own kids, anyway, the ability to filter out stressors and move forward with grace. To quote the late Zig Ziglar, “responding to life is good.” It gives us the opportunity to be more mindful and more supportive, more gentle in a world in need of peace.
The truth is, responding to the needs and behaviors of children is good.
Children don’t melt or have tantrums because they want to be frustrating or difficult. Rather, regardless of a child’s neurological challenges or makeup, she will act out because she doesn’t have the words to tell you what’s wrong. Our response to a child’s distress lowers global stress levels, strengthens relationships, and builds a sense of trust between parent and child. Intense, immediate reactions lead to hurt feelings at best, and damaged relationships at worst.
When we respond to our children’s meltdowns and behavior, we respect their individual needs. We assure our children of their safety and our unconditional support.
The Art of Response: Defusing Meltdowns and Tantrums
My daughter’s anxiety-fueled meltdown didn’t end in the grocery store. It festered as we headed to the doctor’s office, then exploded when we walked in the door. By this point, she wasn’t just upset that she had to use the bathroom, or that her sister had wandered off while we were shopping. Those emotions had been compounded by her generalized fear of medical situations, and her own embarrassment and disappointment at being unable to stop her intense reaction.
She screamed at me in the bathroom. She was rude to the doctor and the nurses. When I corrected her behavior and reminded her of her manners, she smacked herself on the head repeatedly:
OKAY, OKAY, I KNOW!! I’M STUPID! I’M DUMB!
I’m not entirely sure what happened to stem the meltdown, and a large part of me attributes it to an act of God. But whatever the case, I left the office with a calm child, a list of therapists, and a three-step process for responding to my child’s needs.
Step One: Pause
The moment things get crazy, take a step back and breathe. Exhale slowly, like you’re inflating a beach ball. It will lessen both the emotional and physical tension and encourage your child to breathe. If you find yourself in need of concrete relief, try blowing bubbles (a trick from a therapist friend) or brewing a pot of tea. The gigantic mess, the behavior issue, or the chaos isn’t going anywhere. Everyone benefits from a moment of calm.
Step Two: Consider
Think about the situation you’re facing. What are the global emotions at play? Is your child frightened? Overwhelmed? Angry? Hungry? Tired? Thirsty? Consider what is going on in your kiddo, and how you can respond to that need.
Step Three: Respond
Approach the situation from the perspective of reassurance. Let your child know you are there, that you love her, and that you will help her in any way you can. Offer something soothing from your sensory toolbox, remove her from the situation, or even go for a short walk outside. Whatever you can do to redirect and relieve the stress the child is feeling, do it. It’s worth the extra effort to cultivate that sense of peace not just in your child, but in yourself as well.
Learning to respond is hard – it’s something we have to train ourselves to do.
Our gut reaction is always to react first, without thinking, but what ultimate end does that serve? When we keep our focus on the result we want – a child who is happy, thriving, and at peace – it is far easier to develop a habit of response.
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