Ponton: You never cease to surprise me, sir.
Inspector Jacques Clouseau: It’s true. My surprises, they are rarely unexpected.
– The Pink Panther, 2006[i]
Do you sometimes feel like you have to be a detective when your child melts down? You know that what she seems to be crying about shouldn’t elicit that level of passion. So what is the problem? Why is she crying so loudly and for so long? Why did he storm off to his room over such a simple, no-big-deal issue? We know that there must be more to the upset so we have to dig for clues.
Date: September 25, 2012 – my son’s fifth birthday
Scene: Explorers’ Preschool Classroom – The Cubby Area
Precipitating Event: A lengthy, passionate meltdown by one E Miller (my son) over a sticker (all classmates received one) that we put into another child’s cubby in celebration of E’s birthday.
Yes, my son covets other kids’ stuff despite the fact that he has more toys than he can possibly play with. But my gut told me that he would not, could not get this upset over a sticker in a cubby. So despite my lack of energy, despite my head cold, I had to focus on cooling him off so that we could get to the real issue at hand. It took some time for him to settle down but I waited patiently and tried not to fuel the flames further. I made it clear that we could not leave until we put the sticker back in the other child’s cubby but tried not to say much more except calming words.
When the crocodile tears finally subsided and E started to breathe at a reasonable rate again, I mopped his face with tissues and we stood up to leave. Of course, it didn’t help that he was hungry and tired. His defenses were down. As he stood to leave, he said, “Mama, I don’t want to turn five. I want to stay four.” I got lucky this time and my child had enough awareness of his feelings to specifically identify the problem. Major change is often the source of stress and upset. If you have had a death in the family, are moving, or are starting your child in a new school, you likely acknowledge that those major changes can cause emotions to run high. But sometimes kids feel the pressure of a major change when we don’t perceive what is happening as a major change. Big deals to them may be little blips on our busy radars. So what can you do when your child calms down but is still not able to identify the source of the problem?
Consider these four steps the next time a volatile situation occurs.
- Remove him from the crowd to a place where you have some privacy.
- Get on his/her level. Stoop or sit.
- Have the patience to wait while your child calms down.
- Calmly and slowly ask questions and really listen to get to the bottom of the situation.
This, for me, is the toughest part since the timing is not always convenient and typically there are next activities in the day to get to, and sometimes, people waiting. Remind yourself that addressing the problem now slowly and calmly will prevent more meltdowns later in the day. Getting to the heart of the issue does often involve a guessing game for you but here are some ways to narrow your guessing down so that you can be your own expert private investigator.
- Are physical needs taken care of or could hunger, tiredness, or coming down with a bug be the primary culprit for the upset? We were quickly trained in the baby years to look for these signs so continue to use that keen sense now.
- Has there been any kind of major change in your child or your family’s life within the past few weeks?
Consider what might mean major change to your child because sometimes, it’s a change that adults take for granted like a seemingly small difference in your daily routine. Sometimes the release of emotions happens well after the change has occurred since some children work on being strong during the storm. Even perceived positive changes (a birth in the family, Grandma coming to visit, a new job for Dad, a change of season) are still changes and require adjustment on the part of a child. Strong emotions can accompany the ending of something and the beginning of something new. If you suspect or are unsure whether various events are affecting your child, ask.
3. Are there relationship worries your child might have?
Did he disappoint a teacher? Was he rejected by another child? Was Dad mad at him this morning before school? Is your child getting less attention because of a sibling or a new job taking a parent’s time? These relationship worries can bother a child throughout the day and bubble over when they are tired or hungry. They may be upset and unaware that they are worrying about something that occurred earlier in the day. Asking about these may provide insight into your child’s thoughts and fears.
4. Is a major event coming up?
Some children anticipate the coming of even happy events with anxiety. A birthday party can create worries about being the center of attention. Ask about these events if you suspect they might be the culprit and see if the reaction is one of stress.
5. Could your child fear failure?
Is a test coming up? Are they aware of a conversation you’ve had with their teacher about concerns? Are they working on a school project for which they don’t feel competent? Have they done something they know is wrong and fear your disappointment?
“Emotions heal when they are heard and validated,” writes Jill Bolte Taylor in My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.[ii] You are helping your child deal with and move through their upset, worries, anger or fears just by taking the time to listen and understand.
If you are taking the time and exhibiting the patience and calm it takes to get to the root cause of a child’s sincere, passionate upset, then you are teaching the child the invaluable skill of self awareness. You are providing emotional coaching by asking probing questions and allowing your child to articulate the problem. You are also teaching your child the first step in problem solving which is to specifically define the problem so that she can come up with the best possible solution. Remember this the next time you are struggling with patience. These skills will serve your child for a lifetime when you are not there to play parent P.I.
Parr, T. (2010). Todd Parr feelings flash cards. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Kid Detectives in Training:
Landon, L. (2000). Solve-It-Yourself Meg Mackintosh mystery series. Newport, RI: Secret Passage Press. (ages 7 and up)
Mindware (1997). Bella’s mystery deck. Roseville, MN: Author. (ages 10 and up. Deck of 52 cards with a mystery to solve on each.)
[ii] Taylor, J.B. (2008) My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. NY: Viking.