Meltdowns

Is there a parent who hasn’t experienced a child’s upset, tantrum, eruption into tears, seemingly out of the blue, but often as a response to being denied what he or she wants, or some other kind of frustration?  A familiar complaint from parents is that “no” to an unreasonable request, like candy before dinner, or taking mom’s iPhone into the bath, results in a meltdown.

In a discussion with a group of parents recently, this subject was raised by a mother who asked if it was unrealistic to reason with a two year old.  Trying to reason with a child is a familiar response when a child wants things that a parent either can’t, or doesn’t want to accede to – and is most often unsuccessful.  Why do we do it, and why doesn’t it work?

When you stop to think about it, reasoning with a child means offering reasons that will explain why he can’t have what he wants.  The thought – or hope – is that the reasons we offer will persuade the child to give up an unreasonable desire on his part.  But most often, adult logic is no match for childhood emotion.  Much of the time, what seems reasonable to an adult seems most unreasonable from a child’s point of view.  Beyond that, a lot goes into giving up something we want desperately – and children can feel desperate about what they want.

If you think about it in adult terms, imagine wanting to buy something we see that we  really want.  (Children’s upsets can often be a response to wanting you to buy something for them.)  Of course, there are times when we might give in to an impulse just to buy it.  Most of the time, however, we would stop to consider the cost, the effect on our budget, what else we might have to give up in order to have what we want right now. 

That means the ability to think beyond the desire of the moment, to delay gratification, and to tolerate the frustration of not having what we want.  These are hard won abilities gained through a process of maturation over time.  Young children are only at the beginning of that process and are still operating through the pleasure principle in large measure.  The idea of the future (you can have it for your birthday), is still beyond them.  Delaying gratification is too difficult, and the desire of the moment is emotionally more compelling than any abstract reason that makes that impossible.

In thinking about why we try through reason to persuade children to give up what they want, one motivation that often emerges is the wish to try to prevent, or forestall, the emotional reaction – or meltdown – that may follow denying a child’s wish.  The failure of reasoning at times leads parents to “give in” to what children want in order to avoid the scene that may follow their refusal.  Everyone does that at times, to be sure, but at best it does not lead to a particularly helpful outcome.  For one thing, as we all know, children may learn always to use this approach as a way of getting what they want.  Unhappily, this then becomes their source of power in dealing with parents who in children’s view are the powerful ones.

In our parent discussion, one mother spoke of trying to be reasonable herself, by offering the child a substitute acceptable to the parent.  This is a helpful strategy at times.  Often though, a child is adamant about what he wants and substitutes don’t work.  At other times it may be possible to divert a child’s attention to something else he might find interesting.  This can be helpful if done before the interaction escalates into a confrontation between parent and child.   

Much of the time, however, we are faced with a tantrum or a meltdown.  When this does occur, parents often feel a strong need to stop it – first because it is unpleasant, but also because children can work themselves up into such a state that parents feel frightened.  Some children will accept comforting from a parent at such times, while others become even more upset at the attempt – as if it shows you don’t understand how terrible this is for them.

Actually, children can become more upset about their own upset – their loss of control – than you are.  Although, as a father in the group said, a few minutes later it is as if it never happened, children don’t know that.  Their feelings of the moment seem permanent to them – they will never get over this.  That’s why one of the most helpful things we can do as parents is to reassure a child that he will feel better soon.  If we don’t get upset along with him, and are sure this will pass, he feels reassured that maybe the world is not at an end.

The fact is, that as difficult as these episodes are for us as parents, they really are a necessary step in children learning that, “you can’t always have what you want,” and still survive – even be happy again.