Helping your child through a freak-out that has been caused by a compromised state includes juggling between finding a way to reduce the compromise and handling the melt-down. Being "compromised" means when a child is upset due to hunger, thirst, sleepiness, lack of rest, or overstimulation.
The trick is to identify what is compromising the child and sneak in a solution to that weakened state, while at the same time not activating a power struggle.
Parents can calm their child by quietly stimulating the body’s natural calm-down process and feeding the missing need. While doing this, stay away from asking questions like, “Are you hungry?” or “Are you tired?” or “Are you angry," which often stir frustration.
Here are some ideas to fulfilling your child’s needs when they are upset.
Try any one of these:
1. Quietly set food out nearby. Stay away from junk food, so that there isn’t a link made between processed food and feeling better. I recommend cutting fresh fruit or vegetables into interesting shapes or place them in a smiley face on the plate. Don’t say anything!
2. Put the smiling-fruit plate at your spot on the table, smile, wink, and say, “That’s for me—don’t be a food stealer!”
3. Put some of the food in a bowl, sit down near your child, and place the bowl on the floor between you and the child. Quietly eat a few of the fruit/veggie pieces.
Put some water in an interesting glass that your child doesn’t get to use regularly (or use a funky straw). Maybe go buy a cool plastic cup for this use if you aren’t sure your child is going to be able to stop him/herself from throwing it. As with the food, quietly set the glass out near the child. You can try asking, “This is for you, but it looks so fun—can I have some?”
If your child is in dire need of a nap or has been pushed too far past bedtime and has become “squirrelly,” keep your focus on staying calm and being clever. You know your child needs to sleep—your challenge is to find a way to get him or her horizontal, and in one piece.
This is the time to let go of trying to get your child changed into pyjamas or his teeth brushed, focusing rather on shutting down the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for activating your child’s fight-or-flight response.
Here are a few tricks that can help turn the SNS switch off:
If your child isn’t calm enough to be inverted, do “lines,” or “squeezes,” and is frantic, as long as he or she doesn’t feel trapped, you can try lifting him onto a bed or couch, to lie with him until calm. When your child just can’t self-regulate, his parent needs to start the regulation for him.
When my youngest son experiences this, I wrap my arms around his body as I lower us both down onto his bed. When there, I hold with one arm, get the other one doing “lines,” breath slowly onto his face, and touch our foreheads together. He’ll scream or whimper just briefly, and then I can feel his body relax. As it relaxes, I release my hold on him. I also think about things I am grateful for during these moments, so I keep my own self-talk under control.
Ways to sneak in some rest time are to quietly pick up your child’s favourite book and start reading it on the sofa. You could also pick out a puzzle or building toy and start putting something together. Chances are good that your child will come over and join you. When he does, offer a hand on the shoulder to recognize the positive choice he just made. Continue to use a soft tone in your voice while you read or play.
Going for a ride or walk in the fresh air also helps children relax. To pull down power struggles, offer a choice like, “We are going for a walk. Do you want to sit in the wagon or stroller?” or “It is outside time, do you want to ride in the bike trailer or sit in the wagon/stroller?” If you want to use a certain vehicle, still offer some kind of choice like, “How many stuffies would you like to bring in the stroller? Which ones?”
Reduce the stimulation in your child’s environment. Turn radios and all screens off (I do recommend not having any TVs on during the day when children are home). If there are a lot of loud sounds coming from outside, put a white-noise machine or fan on if those sounds seem to have pushed your child over the edge.
If your child is playing with others, gently scoop him up and take him to an area where the two of you can be alone, even just for ten minutes. While there, offer some water if it is handy.
I know it can be very hard to stay calm when your child is not, but if you can do so, your emotional state will positively affect your child’s. I wrote more about how to do that in this article. I also post free parenting resources over on my Facebook page, and welcome you over there for more information.