Child’s meltdown could be call for help

Your daughter's behaviours and reactions are both a response to, and attempt at coping in, a moment when she is overwhelmed...

This morning on our way out the door, my seven-year-old daughter began to freak out about misplacing her favourite coat and she would not calm down.  I ended up yelling at her.  This, of course, made things worse.  She really seems to hold this in her heart.  I tried to explain that there are things that happen (like misplacing coats) which may be upsetting but that we do not need to add to this by worrying about it and throwing fits.  Her coat will be found (which it was).

She was sniffling as we walked to school and made a comment about being bad.  It eats me up to see her suffer and it eats me up to think that I contributed to it.  When she spins like a top, I spin like a top.  Somehow we need to get off this merry go round.  I do not know why she does this and I do not understand why I seem to get caught up in it.  Any thoughts?

Wow.  Sounds like a stressful morning for both of you.  It is hard for everyone to manage when there is a lot going on and we are under pressure to complete tasks and get out of the house on time for school.  Everyone is under the gun in this situation.

What you describe is something that I believe most parents can relate to in one form or another.  Your daughter’s behaviours and reactions are both a response to, and attempt at coping in, a moment when she is overwhelmed.  Your reaction is also a response to being overwhelmed in the moment and an attempt to cope or regain some control over the situation.  The problem with these responses is that they are often ineffective and leave us feeling disappointed and upset with ourselves once we have calmed down.  From the sounds of your letter this is something that both you and your daughter are experiencing.

As stress increases, our ability to cope often decreases.  In young children, their ability to cope with something that they experience as stressful varies.  At times they are able to manage without a problem.  At other times it can seem like the reactions come out of nowhere and that there is no warning.  This can be your child’s experience as well.  When this happens your child is often unable to think, listen or respond in any coherent way.  Their behaviour can seem irrational, manipulative and disruptive to us — hence our angry and frustrated responses.

It is often helpful to recognize that this behaviour is a call for our help.  They are not being deliberately disruptive and uncooperative in these moments, but rather they are unable to cope for any number of possible reasons and they do not have access to their skills for managing in that particular moment.  During these ‘freak outs’ or ‘meltdowns’ they are not able to think or respond rationally. The most helpful thing we can do in these moments is step back, make sure they are safe and reduce as much stress as we can in that particular moment until they can cope again.  This often means reigning in our own frustration, staying calm and trying to slow things down.

Neither we nor our children can solve problems effectively when we are overwhelmed.  The time to problem solve and address the behaviour occurs in those moments later when your child is able to re-engage rationally with you and is demonstrating an ability to cope.  So, for example, in your situation above, waiting until she has stopped ‘freaking out’ and is able to talk calmly rather than trying to address it right away may help.  It is during the times when the reaction has passed that we can more effectively discuss what happened, why it happened and how we can manage it more effectively next time.  Engaging your child in this kind of discussion helps her develop skills at recognizing some of her own struggles managing at certain times and at building the capacity to anticipate these challenges down the road.

I hope this begins to provide you a framework for getting off your merry go round.  I recognize that it is not a strategy that will necessarily bring immediate success in the moment.  However, over time by working with you to resolve the problem, I am confident that you and your daughter will experience some successes that will leave you both feeling much better about the interactions.

To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara-Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.

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