I was having lunch with a friend a few weeks ago and she started tell me about how her son had recently started having these epic melt downs at home. Her son, like mine, is 7 and recently started 2nd grade. He likes school and has never had behavioral problems, which made these outbursts surprising. She explained that the melt down usually came on the heels of something that was either disappointing (he didn’t get his way) or something that made him angry (an argument with his sister). My friend tried to let him cry it out, sit with him or talk him through it, but that didn’t work. As he cried, he started to bring up other things that were completely unrelated to the current situation and not to mention untrue. For example, between sobs he would say (or yell) “I’m stupid” or “Nobody likes me” which would then add fuel to the melt down fire spiraling down deeper into despair. He would start to calm down, she would be hopeful that it was over, but then he would say something that would get him crying/yelling all over again. After fifteen, twenty, sometimes even thirty minutes, he would still be crying and at this point saying, “I don’t know how to stop”. She had tried everything in the book – staying with him, leaving him alone, trying to be close to him, letting him cry it out, distracting him and she didn’t know what else to do. She believed him when he said that he didn’t know how to stop. He had worked himself into such a state and became so exhausted in the process, that he could no longer help himself. Eventually she was able to change the subject and get him thinking/doing something else.
Retelling these stories to me, she was at her wit’s end and felt helpless. She didn’t know what to do. Her son was normally a sweet boy who was happy, active and had a positive attitude most of the time. These melt downs and the negative things he said were totally uncharacteristic of him. Did he real feel this way? Was he doing this for attention? What should she be doing to help him through this? I could see how worried and upset she was over this. We talked through the basics making sure he was getting enough sleep and eating the right foods. We talked about positive reinforcement for things out of the ordinary, not just around grades and behavior at school. It’s unclear whether his insecurities are real, if they are a way to get attention or if this is just a phase that he is going through. Either way, by continuing to be the consistent, loving and attentive mom that I know she is, they will get through this.
At a very basic level, this behavior is something all of us face every day. An event occurs that causes us to become upset, which then triggers us to remember a time when we felt the same way. Before you know it, one story leads to another, piling on more and more to the original situation. The stories keep repeating over and over in our head, each time dragging us a little lower, each time making it a little harder to make the stories stop. My friend’s son, in his 7 year old innocence, said “I don’t know how to stop”. He realized he had reached a point of no return and didn’t have the ability to help himself out. How many of us have been in that same situation without the presence of mind to realize that we needed help? It’s hard but I’ve found the easiest solution is to try to stop before you even get to that point. Allow yourself to feel the emotion of the exact moment, but when the stories start to pile on, stop them immediately. You can even say to yourself, I don’t want to think about this or I don’t want to feel this way, and try to get busy doing something else. It may sound like avoidance, but it’s not.
This is a difficult practice for adults, much less children. We must introduce these concepts to our children. Start the conversation, see where it goes. If you can start to establish the concept with your children, you will then be able to approach these situations from a whole different level. Let’s be honest, melt downs are going to happen regardless, it’s just nice to know that you have another tool in your toolbox to use when the time comes.
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I started writing this blog because I wanted to have deeper conversations beyond "How are you?", "Busy", with other parents. Over the years I've shared personal stories, articles, authors and topics to facilitate conversations with parents about the joys and the challenges of parenting.