We have all experienced firsthand or witnessed the dreaded "meltdown" of a child who had an emotional overload. Wild shouting, defiant pouting, or collapsing in resistance show their failure to cope with the stress of the moment. It can be challenging for parents to have their restraint to let the meltdown melt. Our instinct is to move toward a child in distress, be it choking on a grape, trapping their head in a fence, or sinking in quicksand. I offer my decades of experience as a mother of six children to assure you that in a meltdown, your child is unlikely choking, trapped, or sinking, at least in a physical sense. They are, however, emotionally spiraling, with behavior that can indeed alarm even the most seasoned parent. Public meltdowns can be incredibly challenging. It's hard to watch our kids' emotions erupt like a bubbling volcano with all eyes on us. The gawking intimidation of disapproving onlookers can trigger a parent to act reflexively, only to inadvertently escalate the outburst. Taking a constructive approach can help a parent better face a public meltdown.
First, breathe, remain calm, and keep your eyes on your child and your hands in your pockets. Our first reaction is to reach toward, sweep up, or restrain our overwhelmed little one (or not so little-one). But activate your pause button.
By reflexively moving toward a child in a meltdown, we most often escalate its intensity, prolonging the outburst and adding to the stress our child is experiencing.
Think of seeing a fire and instinctively throwing water on it. We react with the best intention to douse the flames and secure safety, but if it's a grease fire, we fuel the flames and heighten its force. We must stay in charge of the situation, assess the danger, and, when possible, delay responding. Remind yourself that the control meter texts in your favor with each passing second.
Second, don't negotiate or ask your child questions during a meltdown. Many parents (including me) initially react by attempting to talk it out or offering facts, hoping to stop the emotional breakdown with logic. We explain, and we get in the weeds. We get too detailed and say things to try and justify or offset the disappointment. We sometimes miscalculated the conflict's size and misjudged the measure of our kids' ability to cope. We may even underestimate the stress load that can trigger a meltdown.
The third reminder may be the most difficult one to practice. It is to ignore the hecklers, eye-rollers, and shame casters that may witness your child's meltdown. They are not your business. You're too busy; you have a grease fire in front of you.
Don't get distracted and engage with opinion police; you will only divide the energy you need to calm your child and multiply the stress load on the situation.
Act like you're in charge even though you may not feel like you are. As the saying goes, all things must come to an end. When the outburst's intensity lulls, seize it. Please take it as the opportunity to tell, yes, tell, not ask your child what is happening next. Get to their eye level and calmly reassure them they are okay, that you will help them figure the problem out later, and that now we are exiting the public place. Avoid using ultimatum words when telling them what's happening next (if, or, because). Those words offer conditions or alternatives, and they imply choice, which is more grease to spark up overload. Getting to the car, another private place, or returning home may be the end of a tantrum, but it's not the resolution of it.
It helps to know that there are three leading causes of temper outbursts: fatigue, hunger, and fear.
Once your child is relaxed, fed, and feels safe, you can reflect and discuss what happened. Using a "going forward" strategy allows space to talk about the tantrum without the high emotions and gives us room for self-forgiveness. It's a hopeful way to move past an incident that we regret. This thinking creates a more accurate impact assessment of what happened. It also invites a factual recall of the incident and allows for a better understanding of the triggers that initiated the outburst.
Keep your kids informed about timelines and behavior expectations. Ignore disapproving eyes from strangers, always remember to carry snacks, and most importantly, never throw water on a grease fire!