"Mothering during a Melt-Down"

Robyn Coburn's response to questions

Q: Thank you and I also would love it if anyone else has any great mothering suggestions during a melt down.

A: Here's some stuff I do and did with Jayn now 6. The foundation of it is not to take her anger personally, while still acknowledging whatever my part might have been in creating it.

The first part is not to place Jayn into a position where she is likely to meltdown if that is remotely possible - also not to continue to thwart her to the point that she feels that frustrated, but to begin the process of finding an alternative fulfillment at the beginning. For example if your child always has a hard time in large, loud, echoey places - start shopping at a small local grocery instead. (That is partly how of we solved her "store running" problem btw)

When Jayn is having any kind of meltdown, she responds best to physicality with me, ahead of verbal reassurances or empathizing. The core of it is to ask myself "What loving action, as is showing my love to Jayn, can I take right now?" That is the magic question, regardless of how obnoxious she is being

From a recent discussion on Always Unschooled:

What I came to realize is that the priority, in all cases of negative behavior, must be to *show* her my continued love and acceptance of her as a person *first*, and then if necessary express my desires or give the helpful information that she seems to be lacking. Often just the loving action changes her emotional state and she stops the problem actions. This ties in with assuming she is doing the best she can, and expressing empathy, which is best done with Jayn by a loving physical action. I know not all children want this physical response in times of intensity.

The additional bonus for me is that choosing these loving actions helps my anger (at whatever level) to melt away also. The immediate result is a mother who is thinking clearly and logically, and so able to make better decisions.

Sometimes that is holding out my arms to her, sometimes it is blowing a raspberry on her belly, sometimes it is giving her my hands to push against, sometimes it is restraining her for the purpose of letting her push against my body. These are all strategies that help her become emotionally organized again.

Here's a situation of that idea working to avoid a meltdown in a public place recently:

Or perhaps we are in a situation of immediate conflicting needs as we were this "morning" while getting our breakfast (everyone else's dinner) at Home Town Buffet. Jayn was finished and wanted to leave at once. Dh and I said that we wanted to finish our desserts first. Jayn started to say "No, I want to go NOW" and getting louder and teary. Huge crowd in the place, btw. I made a conscious decision, despite a certain amount of internal rising stress, to show her some love and acceptance *first*, despite what conventional parenting might label "whining" or "rewarding of negative behavior". I drew her on to my lap, gave her a slow hug and a kiss, and then told her that I knew she wanted to go and being patient is hard, but we needed a few minutes to finish our desserts. I felt her physically relax. Then she sniffled a bit, but sat quietly and gently on her chair and waited for the few minutes, conversing about other things.

In the past when something like this has occurred, we have tried just the verbal empathy and reasoning, Jayn continued to loudly complain, and then dh, with some grumpiness, has taken Jayn to the car to wait rather than disturb other diners. This is usually somewhat OK because he generally has already finished fast and also dislikes waiting, and I am the slow eater (often because I have spent time assisting Jayn with the buffet instead of eating). For some reason today we were both still munching. The thing is that what I did today felt so much better, so right, *and* worked - by which I mean Jayn willingly chose Patience.

It helps me to have a mental script. It helps me even more if the mental script is something that I devised for myself, fully authentic to me and the way I think and speak and with my priorities, as against just following the scripts of other parenting writers. Having a deliberate script (it might be something as simple as "Breathe") for *myself* has been the best way to avoid knee jerk reactions.

Here's something I wrote fairly recently that is kinda related. It has to do with focusing on discovering the unexpressed need, rather than necessarily wanting to stop the meltdown or negative behavior such as hitting me:

I have found from my experience that the parent(me) thinking, "I have to *correct* this bad action with information" (or even "I need her to know how I am feeling") is a distancing thought. It is not that I never enacted that kind of reaction to Jayn. But I found that it was a path that led to frustration for both of us - and tended to backfire with Jayn so that I couldn't even get to the next step. In re-examining my past uses of the "that hurts me" phrases, I believe I was speaking in a way I had been told I "should" do, and that there was a didactic paradigm, or a controlling paradigm behind it.

However I found a better-for-us procedure. Instead of focusing first on the negative, I try consciously choosing to think the phrase "What does she need?", or more recently what I have found far and away the most helpful thought "What loving action can I take towards Jayn *right now*?". This has produced the results that I would hope for—Jayn becoming calmer, more able to verbalize, more empathetic to me and, incidentally, likely to apologize for hurting me.

I guess that underlying these strategies is the concept that a young child is probably not ready to verbalize coherently in the heat of a meltdown - so the "active" portion of Active Listening, needs to come to the forefront.

Finally here is Tree Goddess's fabulous list of helpful (active and physical) strategies for restoring calm and serenity:

Calming Activities: Experiences that may help to relax the nervous system
  • Stretches
  • Deep pressure massage
  • Slow rocking or swinging
  • Fidget toys
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Quiet music with a steady beat
  • Bear hugs
  • Reduced noise and light levels
  • Lavender, vanilla or other soothing smells
  • Snuggling in a sleeping bag, large pillows or bean bag chair
  • Organizing Activities: Experiences that can help an individual become focused and attentive
  • Sucking or chewing on hard candy or gum
  • Adding rhythm to the activity
  • Vibration-toy massager, vibrating pillow, wiggle pen
  • Heavy work tasks to include hanging, pushing, pulling or carrying heavy objects
  • Similarly: To organize
  • Swinging on a swing or climbing
  • Rhythmical sustained movement: marching, washing a table, or bouncing
  • Rocking in a rocking chair
  • "Squeezie" toys (koosh balls, balloons or rubber gloves filled with flour or cream, soft balls, gak, silly putty)
  • Hanging by the arms on the monkey bars (20-30 seconds)
  • Pushing/carrying heavy objects
  • Carrying back packs weighted with books or bags of dried beans (this should only be worn for 15-20 minutes with an hour or two between)
  • A reading corner with a bean bag chair makes a wonderful place for escape when there is too much stimulation. Some children may like the bean bag on top of them.
  • Play dough
  • Tactile Bins (cornmeal, oatmeal, water, sand, rice, beans)
  • Kitchen time (mixing, tasting, smelling, washing up)
  • Finger painting
  • Some children also need extra sensory input in their mouths and hands in order to organize their behavior:
  • Drinking from a water bottle
  • Chewing (you can use a straw, rubber tubing or coffee stir stick)
  • To calm:
  • Being brushed with a corn de-silking brush (in one direction approximately 10 times with pressure brush their arms, back (but not over the spine), legs (on the top, outer parts and underneath, avoid the inner thigh area), top of the feet and the hands)
  • Sucking on hard candy, frozen fruit bar, or spoonful of peanut butter or marshmallow fluff
  • Licorice tug-of-war, blow pin wheels or various types of blow toys, bubbles and whistles
  • Pushing against walls with the hands, shoulders, back, buttocks and head
  • Cuddling or back rubbing
  • Taking a bath
  • Being rolled tightly like a hot dog in a blanket
  • Being squished under a therapy ball, mat or couch cushion
  • Tug-of-war
  • Wheelbarrow walking, jumping games like hop scotch
  • Crashing games-run and dive into boxes, bean bags and couch cushions
  • Pulling a wagon, carrying a heavy book bag, digging in the yard or carrying groceries
  • Sports such as wrestling and football
  • Deep pressure (giving a massage) and joint compressions (holding above one joint and under one joint then doing a quick 10 repetitions of compressions, pushing and pulling)
  • A mini trampoline
  • A sockem bopper or whatever they call those weighted kid-sized things that spring back up after you knock them down
  • Robyn L. Coburn

    note from Sandra in 2020:
    The group this came from is gone, and I can't properly credit Tree Goddess; sorry.

    In a later discussion, Robyn wrote:

    Luckily for me Jayn continues to be both forgiving and a great teacher (heh, heh). The other day she told me that she "couldn't listen to her heart and my voice at the same time so I shouldn't tell her what to do when she was going wild." It was very profound to me. She suggested that I write it down and keep it where I could see it.

    Jayn setting a Barbie stage