A parent writes that she’s feeling helpless and desperate about her 3-year-old’s frequent, intense meltdowns, which sometimes last up to an hour. This mom says they usually “relate to control and power struggles where he tells me or my husband to do something.” And although she remains calm, responds with empathetic words, assures him that it’s okay to be mad, offers hugs, and tries to acknowledge his feelings, nothing seems to help. Often her responses seem to make him angrier. Understandably, she eventually loses her patience. “I will likely end up screaming at him because I literally can’t handle his screaming at me any longer, and then I feel the weight of the guilt for yelling at him…” Janet offers a slight shift in the parents’ perspective and subtle adjustments they can make to their approach that she believes will help their spirited son move through his emotional flare-ups more easily.
Transcript of “Meltdowns That Keep Happening, Even When We’re Doing Everything Right”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I have a question from a parent that I received in an email, and she’s an amazing parent, clearly. She’s wondering what to do when she’s responding to her child’s upset feelings in all these wonderful ways, and yet he’s still having these extended meltdowns that end up making her upset. She says it’s breaking her heart. I would love to help her understand some nuances that might be missing here and how she can easily shift into a role that will, I feel sure, help him have shorter meltdowns and less meltdowns.
Okay, so before I read this note, I just want to comment that I try to choose topics and questions that I not only think will interest listeners, but that first and foremost interest me in terms of responding. Being able to share things that I haven’t shared exactly before. I’m just a person that doesn’t like repeating myself, I know that it can be helpful to do that. And also I’m very intrigued by the subtleties in our responses to our children. So not the broader strokes, but the finer strokes. So that’s what this response is going to be about. This parent is doing everything sort of by-the-book, the way that I put it out there—at least I can see how it seems like that to her. So I’m really looking forward to getting in here. She’s provided a lot of details, which is really helpful.
I actually had another question that was in a similar vein to this, but there really weren’t a lot of details. And what I did was I replied back, could the parent please take a video of these episodes with her child so that I could see for myself some of the nuances that are happening between them? I know that’s not easy to do, setting up a camera when we’re going through something with our child, but that can be extremely helpful. It’s why I love doing in-person consultations the most, because it’s all there right in front of you and you can really get a handle on what’s happening.
Okay, so here’s this parent’s lovely note. The subject line on this email is: Please help, desperate parents here.
My husband and I both implement gentle, respectful parenting at home with our three-year-old son, who is very intelligent, verbally expressive, and perceptive. My interaction with my son today brought me to tears, as I felt completely helpless. I’ve been feeling that way lately during some of his huge 30-minute to hour-long meltdowns, and many of them seem to relate to control and power struggles where he tells me or my husband to do something.
Today he told me to put on his pull-ups for him. He’s very capable of putting them on himself and has been doing so daily for several months. To which I responded with, “Yes, putting those on can be tough. I’m here for you if you need help. Can you show me, what’s the first thing that you do when you start putting them on?” His voice became angry as he firmly told me that he wants me to put them on. Long story short, my refusal to put them on for him led to screaming and hitting me in the face with his pull-up diaper.
During this whole 45-minute episode, I offered empathetic words like, “It’s okay to feel mad. Big feelings are tough, but I love you and I’m here for you,” and offered hugs if he wanted them. I mostly tried to sit quietly with him during these moments because talking too much makes him more angry usually. He also gets very upset if I try to do something else, like get ready for his classes and appointments, even after showing empathy, which has made leaving the house very challenging lately. The really difficult thing is, despite teaching and demonstrating that all emotions are normal as long as we maintain gentle hands, he refuses to acknowledge his feelings. I’ll say something like, “You seem frustrated or mad at ___,” or, “Are you feeling mad, frustrated because ___?” And he would get even more angry and yell back, “No, I’m calm!”, even though he’s clearly angry.
We’re perplexed as to why this happens since we’ve been so keen on demonstrating that feelings of all kinds are healthy and normal. We are very mindful about maintaining structure to his day, especially around meals and afternoon nap time, and not overstimulating him with too many to-dos. We also offer safe, age-appropriate choices whenever possible, like his choice of outfits, shoes, meal items, etc., to empower him with decision-making, as well as get him involved in jobs like mopping, setting the table, etc. My husband and I spend a lot of quality playtime with him as I’m a homemaker and my husband immediately takes over when he gets home and on the weekends, but there’s also plenty of independent play time for books, Legos, and blocks, his favorite toys.
Anyway, coming back to today’s episode after all of that background info, the reason why I ended up in tears and feeling absolutely helpless is that as these intense and long episodes linger on, I start to feel myself losing my calm, usually around the 45- to 60-minute mark. I feel the anger and frustration inside myself intensifying, and I know that I can’t maintain the calm much longer. I need to be alone for a minute, but my screaming, irate child does not allow this. This is the moment when I will likely end up screaming at him because I literally can’t handle his screaming at me any longer. And then I feel the weight of the guilt for yelling at him when I know that I, the grown-up, am supposed to be his calm when he has big feelings.
Sorry for the long-winded message, but I am at a loss. I feel like I’ve exhausted my bag of tools. Are meltdowns of this length and magnitude normal? I’m definitely not trying to prevent tantrums, but I feel lost as to what to do during these intense episodes that seem to go on and on with no end in sight. I’m trying my best to be a connected parent and I don’t want to lose my own temper during these moments, but it’s a challenge that I sometimes fail at.
Thank you so much for any advice or words of wisdom that you can offer.
Okay, so there’s a lot here. Even as I’m reading this again, I’m seeing a lot of interesting little details. To me, they’re clues or little clues as to what is going on here. Why this parent’s responses—her very caring, thoughtful responses—are kind of misfiring with her child. She says in the beginning of the note that he’s a very intelligent, verbally expressive, and perceptive child. So yes, he’s reading really everything that she’s feeling and her intentions as much as hearing her words and seeing her actions. So as many children do, and especially children that are extra-perceptive, they’re tuned way in. So it makes it harder on us to pretend anything, even a little bit.
And I know that sometimes it can help to try at calm and then see the results of that, and sometimes that helps us to actually be more calm. But really, calm is an inside job. It has to come from the inside out. It has to come from our perspective on what’s going on with our child, our trust that it’s safe for him to be as mad as he needs to be at us, and that there’s nothing threatening there on our end. That we can welcome that as the big people we want to be for him. And that feelings pass. Obviously it’s daunting if it feels like there’s a 30-minute to hour-long meltdown. I would say that if that’s happening often, that it is a sign that there might be some adjustments we can make. It’s not typical for children to do that. So it seems like he’s giving a clear sign here that he needs a little tweaking in the parent’s approach. And part of it, I believe, is the way this parent and many of us tend to perceive calm.
What calm really is in these situations is that openness we have, that our child feels, to whatever they’re going through and really connecting with them where they are in that way. That’s what’s calming for a child. If we’re trying to practice being calm from the outside in, a child like this especially will tend to feel that and it won’t calm them. It feels almost like we have a little glaze between us of distance, that our child can’t quite be seen and heard through. But that’s a very typical kind of transition state for us as we’re working towards being calm from the inside out. So it’s a positive part of the process. Still, we need to go that extra distance and I’m going to try to explain how to do that based on what’s going on with this parent and child.
And believe me, nothing I’m going to say here or ever is meant to be critical of parents, most of whom—at least the ones that I hear from—are incredibly thoughtful, engaged, respectful, working so hard at this. And I have nothing but admiration for them or any of us that are trying to do this job. So I’m only intending to be helpful, not critical. Though I am going to go over the clues that she’s given me and offer alternative suggestions.
So when this parent says, “Today he told me to put on his pull-ups for him,” and she says, “He’s very capable of putting them on himself and has been doing so daily for several months. To which I responded with, ‘Yes, putting those on can be tough. I’m here for you if you need help. Can you show me what’s the first thing that you do when you start putting them on?'” And then she said, “His voice became angry as he firmly told me that he wants me to put them on.” So it’s wonderful that he’s able to put them on himself. And I think sometimes we can get caught up in, as parents, that if we do something for a child that they can do themselves. That word can. The definition of that in this instance is not, are they able to do the actions ever, but are they able to take those actions now, in this moment? Sometimes they’re not, because they don’t want to. And they have a reason, that they’re probably not aware of, that they just want us to do it.
And I could see how this parent would be concerned. Her child, she said, seemed “to relate to control and power struggles where he tells me or my husband to do something,” so I can see where she feels like, I don’t want him to be controlling me and bossing me, having me do things just because he says so. That’s a valid point. But in this instance, it’s not a big deal. He’s not asking her to go sit in a different chair or get him a different color this or that, something that is a bit unreasonable. He’s asking for a kind of caring, momentary interaction that he just wants. So I would look at, Is it really important that we make sure he do this, even though we know that he can? Or is it more important that I go the other direction, and I’m so willing to do it because I love caring for my child?
Maybe you have to be a parent of grown-up children like me to see how nice it is to be able to help children with their clothes, pull on their pull-up, help them on the potty, put on their pajamas, give them a bath, even if they’re able to do things themselves. Those are caregiving activities that children do tend to crave at different times in their life. And I don’t know what’s going on in the greater scheme of things here with this family, but it’s often when there’s something new happening or something where, just do that little caring thing for me, please. And I know he didn’t say please or ask very nicely maybe, but I would just shrug my shoulders and welcome that and not make a big deal out of it.
Because the way it can come off to a child when we suggest that he should give it a try is that we’re pushing back, we’re invalidating his wish there. Obviously this parent does not mean to do that, but sometimes we can get so caught up in helping our child to achieve and do things or to make sure they’re not bossing us or trying to take control over us in ways that aren’t healthy for them, that we just maybe make a little too much of these small things.
And the other part of this is when we say something like, “Can you show me, what’s the first thing that you do when you start putting them on?” It’s a little bit tricky. It’s not direct and totally honest, which would be to say, “You know what? I know you know how to do this and I don’t want to put those on for you. I want you to do it.” That might come off more direct in that moment. And I was thinking about how this would relate—if we can use an adult example, I know children are not adults, but the kinds of interactions we have with them and the kinds of feelings back and forth can be quite similar. These are human dynamics. So the adult example I thought of is if I said to my friend or my partner, “I don’t feel like driving now, can you take over?” and then they respond, “Start the car and see how that feels.” I would feel a bit invalidated, right? I would feel like you’re trying to get me to do it, even though I said I don’t want to.
So of course I would not do everything that he or any child says, but I would in this case say, “Sure, I’d love to.” Or if I really didn’t want to: “You know what? I don’t want to do that right now. I’ve got my hands full or I’m busy,” or maybe I don’t need to have an excuse. “I just don’t feel like that. Sorry, you can be mad.” That’s a little more connected. So to connect, it’s best to be honest and direct. It’s also best to stay in the now, which is almost always where children live, right? Rather than analyzing or giving an overview. That feels like a bit what this parent does when she says, “It’s okay to feel mad. Big feelings are tough, but I love you and I’m here for you.”
And she said she offered hugs if he wanted them. So going back to the adult example with the car and me not wanting to drive at that moment, and then after I got mad that they tried to get me to drive anyway, and this friend or partner says, “It’s hard to feel mad like that. I’m here for you.” It feels a bit more avoidant, right? Instead of, “Gosh, sorry, you really wanted me to drive and I pushed back on that and I tried to get you to do it. I get why you’re mad.”
When we want to give those messages that it’s okay to feel mad feelings and we love them and we’re here for them, those work better—just as they would with an adult or older child or older person—when we show, rather than tell. By meaning it, by allowing our child to have those mad feelings at us and us not trying to do anything to calm them down, make them stop, analyze them, go over the situation. That’s how children know, they learn deep down it’s okay to feel mad. And that we’re there still, sitting with them, and we’re not offended and we’re showing that we’re still caring and being there for them. Offering hugs can be great, but it can also come off as, Okay, I want you to feel better, so let me hug you right now. It can come off that way, if that’s what we’re feeling.
So I guess overall what I’m trying to say is that what matters in these situations is not the words we say, not the actions we take, but how we are feeling. Because that is what our perceptive child is feeling from us. So it can help to really look at our intentions: What is my intention when I ask my child to do the first step of this activity that they don’t want to do? What is my intention when I’m saying that feelings are tough and I love you and I’m here for you and offering a hug? What is my actual intention there? Oftentimes, if we really connect with this—and believe me, I feel this still, and it was definitely my MO in the beginning when I was first trying some of this with my oldest daughter and then the children I worked with—my intention, if I was honest, was I wanted to make this go away. I mean, not them, but the feelings. I wanted to calm them down, make sure they know that everything’s okay and everything’s going to be all right, and they don’t need to be mad at me. And I’m their friend, I’m on their side. But those were coming from my own discomfort. They weren’t coming from that place that I was talking about in the beginning of the true calm and the true way to calm someone else, which is to trust, This is going to pass. You get to feel this and you’re going to feel better on the other side. I know it. Instead of, I’ve got a responsibility here. I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to make this work. I’ve got to help you feel better. It’s going on and on. I feel stuck and now I want to scream. I really do, because nothing I’m trying is working.
And that’s because we’re trying to get something to work instead of making our sole goal connection, with what’s going on between us right now. Accepting, rolling out the red carpet for those feelings, wanting them to get expressed in their full force all the way, because that’s how children move through it faster. When they go to the heights and the depths of the feeling, they move through it faster and they clear it, they get it out of their system. So it’s not going on and on and it’s not flaring up constantly all day long or all week long. It’s a productive sharing for them of whatever’s going on, which is not about a pull-up, I’m sure, or any of those specifics. It’s some other emotional process he’s got going. That’s what we want to try to trust.
So when we’re connecting, we want to try to be honest and direct, stay in the now. And then the third way is to validate by only reflecting back what we know for sure. And this next part was a clue for me what might be going on with this parent. She says, “The really difficult thing is, despite teaching and demonstrating that all emotions are normal as long as we maintain gentle hands, he refuses to acknowledge his feelings. I’ll say something like, ‘You seem frustrated or mad at ___. Are you feeling mad or frustrated because ___?’ And he would get even more angry and yell back, ‘No, I’m calm!'” So there’s your answer: he’s mad. That’s why he’s saying, “No, I’m calm!” in the way that he’s saying it. The feeling behind that is he’s frustrated or mad. And I’m not sure the way this parent was saying “you seem frustrated or mad,” but the way that could work is if she was really looking at him in the eyes and nodding, “You seem so frustrated about that. Yeah, that’s so maddening, isn’t it?”
And then we don’t have to ask him why that is because we know what he’s given us in the moment, which is, “You wanted me to put those pull-ups on. You wanted me to do that for you. That’s what you wanted.” In a way that’s actually easier than trying to get into a kind of analytic lesson about feelings or having him try to connect with his feelings in these times. Even as adults, we don’t connect with exactly what we’re feeling when we’re in the heat of it. It’s later when we realize what it was. When we’re dysregulated like that, we’re not able to consider words like frustrated. Especially at this age because his prefrontal cortex, like all three-year-olds’, is underdeveloped.
And her son’s kind of sensing the emotions churning up inside of her. He’s sensed, probably way before she does, when she’s on her way to blowing up at him. And when we’re feeling those things as parents, yes, she’s got a brilliant instinct to move away. But when we feel that and we can reflect on it later that we felt those feelings rising in us, it’s usually because we’ve been making these efforts that are not paying off to try to use power that actually we don’t have: the power to make him pull his pull-up on if he doesn’t want to pull his pull-up on. We can do it for him, but we can’t make him do it. So that energy we’re putting into that is wasted for us.
I feel this parent trying so hard to do what she’s learned to do with his feelings, to try to reflect back and help him name his emotions and all these things that she said they’ve been working on. They’ve been working on a lot of this, so she’s invested in it, but all that effort is not paying off. And that would get any of us screaming when we’re trying so hard to do all these things at once. She’s also putting a lot on herself here: She’s got to teach him about emotions, make sure he does these skills, she’s got to be the perfect calm presence. It’s a whole lot.
So ease up, keep it simple. Just connect by being honest and direct, trusting that the feelings are safe for him, and validating by only reflecting back what we know for sure. Really believing that the feelings are safe and okay, in our heart of hearts. Reminding ourselves that it’s really okay for him to feel whatever he feels. It’s not my job to fix this.
And she says, “He also gets very upset if I try to do something else, like get ready for his classes and appointments, even after showing empathy, which has made leaving the house very challenging lately.” So yes, another place to consider our goal and intention is when we’re showing empathy. Why do we want to show empathy? What is our intention? Ideally, it’s to let him know we accept and we want to connect with him that way. We accept his point of view and welcome the feelings to be expressed. We’ll be able to achieve those goals. And this can be while we’re doing something else. But it won’t work unless we’re genuinely accepting and connecting, welcoming those feelings. And then when we do need to help him out the door, then it’s extra-important that while we’re moving him along physically, we’re fully accepting his side of things. That’s what I call “confident momentum.”
I hope some of this helps, and I want to thank this parent again for trusting me with this story of what’s going on with her. I know she can do this. So I hope she gives herself a break, and trusts her son and herself a little bit more to get through this rough patch.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.