Tantrums Versus Meltdowns. Why I Choose To Call Them “Meltdowns.”

After writing and sharing this post, which made me feel vulnerable, I was very taken aback by a couple of uncompassionate responses by people I never thought would have such a reaction. They were mothers of children with Autism. They were quite upset that I had used the term “meltdown” to describe my loss of control. They had said that I had had a “tantrum” “over not getting my way.”

Needless to say, I was quite confused and bewildered by their responses. So were a number of other gentle parents. The argument these two moms tried to use was that only people with Autism are allowed to have meltdowns, and everyone else has tantrums and can control themselves.

I won’t get into how wrong it is to tell an adult who chose to share about her embarrassing episode in the hopes of reminding everyone that meltdowns happen to even mature adults that she had a “tantrum,” except to say that it is wrong.

I will explain that as an early childhood professional, I do have some knowledge of and experience with children with Autism and other sensory issues. These children can, in fact, have very intense and even violent meltdowns that can last for hours. Some of these meltdowns are triggered by sensory overload such as bright lights, too much noise, clothing that is uncomfortable, and having too many people nearby.  These meltdowns are totally uncontrollable. 

But, typical children have uncontrollable meltdowns too. A meltdown is when we lose total control over our emotions for whatever reason. Tantrums are the same thing. Only when most people hear the word “tantrum,” they picture a child trying to “manipulate” us in order to “get his/her own way.”  Even the moms complaining about my terminology said it was to “get my own way.”

In reality, when I lost control of my emotions that night, I had no thought of “getting my way.”  My thoughts were not coherent in that moment.  I was still grieving. I had just watched my husband and his sister bury their mom a month ago that night. I was dealing with my own grief. I just wanted to enjoy the rest of my time with my mom and her boyfriend before they left for home six hours away.  What I truly wanted was for my mom to live closer and for the grief I was experiencing to go away. I knew acting like a fool wouldn’t allow me to “get my way.”

That’s the thing. People witnessing a meltdown have no clue what is truly going on. They see a “bratty” child throwing a fit over “not getting what he/she wants.”  They look at the parents begrudgingly for not “controlling and spanking that brat.” They call it a “tantrum.”

What they don’t see is the child having a hard time. The child may be overtired, hungry, thirsty, getting sick, going through major transitions, being triggered by something sensory related, and/or trying to learn how to cope with a major, to him/her, disappointment. The brain goes haywire. He/She loses control. 

Yes, before a full blown meltdown, people can use coping skills. We can prevent some meltdowns by validating children’s feelings and giving them ways to express themselves as well as meeting needs.

But once anyone enters a full blown meltdown, it’s over until the brain allows them to calm down and regain control. The only appropriate response to anyone experiencing a meltdown is compassion and empathy.

The reason why I stopped using the term “tantrum” to describe children’s loss of emotional control is the negative connotation of the term. Anyone familiar with me and my work knows that I’m trying very hard to get society to see children in a positive light. To help everyone understand the development of young children. And for Christians to view and treat children as the blessings that they are. The term “meltdown” is more respectful.

I don’t care who you are, how old you are, if you have special needs or not, we all have meltdowns. Life gets hard. It will happen. Let’s not judge children or adults. Let’s assume there is always a deeper reason for the meltdown. And let’s not say that one group has “meltdowns” and the other group has “tantrums.”  Jesus tells us not to judge others. Besides, Jesus had a few meltdowns Himself in the Temple and in the Garden of Gethsame. 

May we treat all children and adults with compassion and respect!

image

Cry-It-Out: What Is It? Why Is It Harmful?

Cry-it-out means to leave an infant to cry alone without any type of response from us in order to sleep train.

Allowing infants to protest while we quickly do something that takes us away from them does not constitute cry-it-out especially if we communicate with them about what we must do. Our aim is not always to stop or prevent crying. Our aim is to validate them, support them, and be responsive to their needs.

Since crying is an infants only way of communication, leaving them in a dark room to cry releases huge amounts of stress hormones to their brains. Sure, they eventually stop and sleep when left to cry-it-out, but it’s not the healthy sleep people believe it is.

Rather, their brains are literally shutting down from stress due to crying so hard. Then the learned helplessness sets in. Infants learn to mistrust themselves and their caregivers when their cries are not consistently and respectfully responded to. Just because allowing them to cry “worked” and they appear fine, doesn’t mean damage didn’t occur.

As an early childhood professional, I cannot recommend cry-it-out ever. Infants need a response when they cry. A little fussing with our support as they fall asleep is ok, but outright ignoring their cries is not. Dr. Bruce Perry, Dr. William Sears, and many others have done research showing that cry-it-out is extremely harmful.

Infants should have consistent bedtime routines such as a warm bath, nursing or bottle feeding, singing, and a book read to them. Children thrive on routines because routines are flexible in order to meet the children’s needs. Schedules are not designed to meet children’s needs. They are more for adult’s convenience. Eating and sleeping should revolve, mostly, around the infants needs. Catching infants before they become over tired can help them fall asleep easier. Also, some families may find safe co-sleeping helpful in nighttime parenting.

image

The Brain Overload During Meltdowns Is REAL!

I was recently reminded that the total brain overload and loss of control in children during meltdowns is very real! Why? Because it happened to me!

I’m 34 and was recently at a public place with my husband and some other family members. At this place, I was treated disrespectfully.

Now, due to my severe cerebral palsy, people often treat me as a child or a person with a mental disability. Usually I take it in stride. I never make a scene in public. But, unfortunately, this time was different.

Instead of just brushing this person off and moving on, I lost it and yelled and said things that I regretted as soon as my brain came back under my control. My husband and family were trying to calm me down but my brain was stuck in “fight or flight” mode.

Looking back, it was weird but I had truly lost control of my impulse, self-control like young children do. My brain just got stuck. Usually I can talk myself down and use self-control. Not then.

After a few minutes as my brain came back to me and God gently convicted me, I realized I’d REALLY blown it. I wanted to disappear or run out. All I could do was look out the window and cry. I couldn’t stop crying.

Thankfully, my husband got me out of there, but not before I willingly and on my own accord, apologized to the person I had yelled at. The person graciously accepted my sincere apology. Of course, I prayed and asked God for forgiveness as well.

Once we left, I also apologized to my family. I felt awful that I acted so horribly. I still beat myself up over the incident even though weeks have passed since the incident occurred.

If you have been reading my blog recently, you are aware that my husband and I are grieving the loss of his mom, to whom I was quite close. It has been a rough few months for us. Looking back on this incident, it is obvious that grief played a major role in my very embarrassing public meltdown.

After all, I had never done this before in my life!  No, grief is not an excuse for my inappropriate response, but it is a good reason.

My point in telling this embarrassing story that I wish I could forget is that I think many adults think that children can control themselves in a full blown meltdown. They believe that children are just trying to manipulate us into giving them their way.

I can assure you from my incident that children absolutely can not control themselves during meltdowns. The brain gets overloaded with stress hormones and they truly lose control. Getting angry, yelling, spanking/hitting, shaming, or otherwise punishing them will only keep their brains in this heightened stress state longer. Had my husband and family scolded me or punished me, it would have only escalated things. Instead, they spoke calmly and offered comfort which allowed my brain to get unstuck in order for me to calm down and make things right. My tears became tears of godly sorrow for messing up.

When our children are in the throes of a meltdown, the best thing we can do is speak quietly and calmly to them and offer comfort until their brains come back under their control. The “fight or flight” response is very real and extremely powerful. The sooner we help them get out of that mode, the sooner we can teach them healthy calming and coping techniques to prevent that from happening most of the time as they grow.

We can also teach them that there are times throughout life where the stress and pain is too much for them to bear and they may get stuck and make a complete and utter fool of themselves, but God and we will be there to support, forgive, and help them through it.

image

The Pain Is REAL!

So, my husband and I are grieving his mom who went Home August 8th, 2015 and it’s become more and more obvious how the United States wants to repress pain as soon as possible. Any negative emotion is pushed into a time frame, and once that time frame is over, it’s time to “get over it.”

Western society minimalizes everything unless the media finds it sensational and can then exploit others’ pain.

It wasn’t like this in Bible times. People spent weeks or months in mourning. It wasn’t rushed. You could actually mourn without pressure. Now, once the person is in the ground, it’s time to move on.

Well, I’m not ready. Grief does not work that way, especially when it’s a MOM!

Watching my husband grieve his mom has been unbearable. She carried him in her womb, nursed him, and did all the wonderful mom things with him.

How in the world do you simply “get over” that?  Guess what!  You DON’T!  Especially when she was a wonderful mom that never intentionally hurt him.

She was my second mom for 17 years. She fully accepted me into her family. With my disability AND our age difference, she could have chosen to be like my dad and reject me and disown her son. But she and her husband welcomed me right into the family as did the rest of my husband’s family.

To be hurting this much actually makes me happy in a way because to hurt THIS much means she did something VERY RIGHT. I’d choose this grief over the weird, yucky grief I had with my dad who abused me.

We need to stop teaching children from infancy that happiness is the only acceptable emotion because it’s not. It has created a society where pain and suffering must be dealt with as quickly as possible because it makes others feel uncomfortable. God never intended that. Validate your children’s negative feelings. Help them learn healthy ways of dealing with negative emotions.

Then, teach them how to help others who are in pain. Because while anyone can put a smile on his/her face and act “fine,” the pain is REAL no matter how old you are. It helps if not only God, but other people actually come along side you and help carry some of the pain. We can’t stop it, but we can help carry it!

Romans 12:15 New American Standard Bible (NASB):

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

Love this song, “Not Right Now” by Jason Gray.

image

Helping Toddlers Deal With Big Feelings

Toddlerhood is full of intense emotions and transitions over which they have no control. They are discovering their independence, while, at the same time, still requiring much dependence on their parents. Striking a balance between dependence and independence can be difficult for them. Plus, they still lack the vocabulary to tell us how they feel or what they want. On top of all of this, as they can finally walk, climb, and run in order to explore their world more fully, there are limits added that weren’t there before, and sometimes they may not always get what they want.

Yes, toddlerhood is not an easy time for toddlers or for their parents. Developmentally, they cannot control their impulses. They test everything out of curiosity, not maliciousness.

It is up to us to guide them through this tough stage of development. When toddlers get upset, it is important to figure out why and validate their feelings. Usually a full-blown meltdown can be avoided if we are aware of the toddler’s needs and intervene with offers to help them. If they know we hear them and will validate them, they are less likely to completely meltdown. It is also important to tell toddlers what is expected of them. For example, if we are going to the grocery store, we need to tell our toddler what we will and will not be buying at the store. This will help them not be so disappointed when we remind them that candy wasn’t on the list when we are at the store. A well-fed, well-rested, and well-loved toddler is less likely to have a meltdown.

image

Providing children with appropriate ways of getting out their anger and aggression like punching as pillow, doing an angry dance, kicking a ball outside can be another way in which we can help prevent full blown meltdowns. Calm me jars also help. Fill a plastic bottle with water. Then pour glitter in. Duct tape the cap on and give it to the child when he/she is upset. He/She can manhandle it. As he/she calms down, he/she can watch the glitter settle. We can then talk to him/her about his/her feelings. It’s always better and more Biblical to help children work through their negative feelings rather than punish the child.

But despite everything that we may do in order to prevent toddlers from having meltdowns, there are always going to be times in which a limit has been set or a “no” has been given to something the toddler really wants and the toddler is going to get very upset and have a meltdown. As upsetting and tiring it is for us, this is a normal stage of child development for young children and is just as upsetting and tiring for them.

As Christians, it is also helpful for us to remember that the child is not being sinful. He/She is trying to communicate with us using their very primitive communication skills.

When meltdowns happen, it is important for us to remain as calm as possible. A toddler in a meltdown cannot control themselves as their brains are in overload. Scolding and punishing them will not help. They need us to gently but firmly help them get through the meltdown. Having them in a safe place where they can’t hurt themselves, others, or property is important. Quietly saying, “You’re showing me your big feelings. You’re so angry. I am here.” is helpful. But, try not to say too much as it could agitate them even more. Some children may find gentle restraining helpful while others just need room to work through the meltdown.

At the end of a meltdown, it is okay to talk to the child about more appropriate ways of dealing with their anger. If they made a mess during the meltdown, have them help you clean it up. This should not be a punishment. Make it fun. Also, right after the meltdown, pray with your toddler to help him or her feel God’s peace within him or her. I also recommend singing a favorite Christian song after the meltdown. Children must learn that God loves them no matter what, and we do too!

Helping children co-regulate their feelings by validating them and providing for their needs allows for children to become emotionally healthy and able to cope with the disappointments of life appropriately. After all, this is what God does with us. He validates our feelings and our hearts.

For example, in Matthew 9:2, Jesus first tells the paralytic to “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.”

You see, being disabled in New Testament times was quite a hardship emotionally as well as physically because the people treated people with disabilities as beggars. They were outcasts. Some even believed that they were disabled due to sin, which John 9 shows isn’t the case. Jesus is more concerned with our hearts than our physical beings.

Gentle but firm discipline allows children to identify and deal with negative feelings. They learn to express them appropriately. By positively helping children work through their feelings, they learn we will always listen and help them. This will lead them to come to us, and, ultimately, to God when they are in need.

image