So, I’m in Morrisons flying solo…… with my 4 year old. Ordinarily this fills me with dread but today is different. I’m feeling empowered and heroic because I’ve been super organised and taken the time beforehand to plan this covid operation in full. I created his own shopping list which he is proudly clutching and I’ve even negotiated one of those kids “mini trollies" from customer services!
So off we trot together, totally nailing this parenting malarkey as we beautifully swerve the sweet aisle. We hit the frozen section, we’re on the home straight when suddenly out of the corner of his eye he spots a Hot Wheels car in all its glory abandoned on an end aisle. He looks up and gazes down to see the aisle full of toys. The frozen chicken dippers fall from my hands as I call his name in a vague attempt get him to unsee what he’s just clasped his beady little eyes on but it’s too late, that forty quid remote control dinosaur that he’s never seen before but has now “always wanted” is now perched in his tiny trolley and he is making his way to the checkouts.
I knew it wasn’t going to go well, I was so close but needless to say my experience was not a good one, there were tears, there was shouting, it was BRUTAL. I felt totally gutted that yet again another of my best intentions had not gone my way “why me, why my kid? What’s wrong with him” - questions I also hear many of my clients ask. Whether we do it consciously or not, as parents we constantly compare our kids to the seemingly golden children around us. We tell ourselves other parents are “better” - that we aren’t doing it right or we're not “good enough.” The reality is none of us have parenting nailed, even those who study children for years and write books about it don’t have the answer. We are all just winging it one way or another, I always tell my clients it’s not about being Mary Poppins it’s about being good enough for most of the time.
We all have our children’s best interests at heart, and when we signed up for this parenting gig I’m sure our goal wasn’t just to “survive” in life - we want our family to “thrive”.
In my experience I have found that traditional parenting techniques rarely work, they tend to leave us feeling defeated and disconnected from our children and, if used in the absence of warmth and nurture can lead to chronic feelings of shame. So I try as much as I can to focus on the relationship. This is the first of a series of mini blogs and today I am going to share with you my initial emergency procedures for that moment when the s***t has hit the fan.
Meltdown Emergency Procedure 1: Adjust your Oxygen Mask
First and foremost, let’s park up the screaming child – check in with yourself – how are you feeling? Embarrassed? Angry? Defeated? Exhausted? All these feelings will reduce your tolerance and the last thing you want is to be joining your child up there on the ceiling, so do you need a moment to take a breath and connect with what’s going on?
Deal with any immediate safety concerns like a dinosaur hurtling towards you, or a now empty shelf that has just been swiped. You must be calm yourself before you can deal with your little firecracker.
Meltdown Emergency Procedure 2: Escape!
“Get outta there!” – Get away from the gawkers and avoid eye contact with the do-gooders who are only too happy to comment on why your child might be crying. This is about YOU and YOUR child. If we feel negatively judged by well-meaning passers-by we tend to feel like we’ve done something wrong. We may feel guilty and at worst – we feel shamed which can lead to defensive angry responses from us, (and let me tell you, yelling at an old lady near the spotted dicks and cream eclairs ain’t gonna do anyone any favours!) Remember they are not emotionally attached to your child and have not been pulled into this emotional sandstorm so they can think clearly and logically about what they're seeing. When we are under threat our ability to think clearly shuts off and we become emotionally driven (think fight-flight). So keep this in mind and try and find ways to remain calm so that you can think it through for the both of you.
Head to a quieter part of the store - usually the bread section (or if it’s going really badly I like to head to the very end aisle – where “mummy’s juice” is - that way if it goes horribly wrong there’s always the option to grab a bottle of fizz and admit defeat! – hey at least you’ll be calm right? Every cloud!)
Better still though move your Tasmanian devil away from anything glass and if you can, pop outside for a moment so you can both get some fresh air and a change of scenery.
Meltdown Emergency Procedure 3: Do not enter into Negotiations at this point
Initially words are futile – you need to regulate your child as the part of their brain (pre-frontal cortex) that regulates big emotions and responds to things like reasoning, negotiating, problem solving and impulse control is not fully mature yet. When humans are under stress this area of the brain effectively shuts down temporarily as we slip into our emotional brain so when a full blown meltdown ensues, children are unable to access these skills and respond to our pleas to calm down rationally.
Your job therefore is to gently peel them from the ceiling by re-regulating them so that they are better able to access this part of the brain which allows them understand your words and logic. We can do this by using the senses, maybe offering a drink, a snack (particularly something crunchy), a tight hug or a brisk walk round the car park.
We often assume a tantrum is some manipulative ploy to get what they want but actually the ability to manipulate requires being able to think about the impact of their behaviour on others (known as theory of mind) which also comes from the same brain region that isn’t fully mature yet. This can be helpful to bear in mind because when we feel manipulated or controlled in a situation it tends to push our buttons and we are therefore more likely to respond with anger which merely fuels the fire.
So less on the words – keep it simple “I’m here for you” “let’s pop outside for a bit”
So, these are the first three steps in your emergency meltdown response. I hope they leave you feeling a little less helpless in the face of a meltdown. Next week we will continue the conversation and talk about how we can use connection with your child once the storm begins to pass.
In the meantime for more parenting support please follow us on social media @rootspsychology or check out one of our new parenting with PACE courses. Rootspsychologygroup.co.uk