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When we need to calm first
Moving from Meltdowns to Teamwork
You have asked your child to pick up his toys and he’s refusing. The mantra “choose to connect” is echoing in your brain as you move toward him to follow through. You take the deep breath, remembering to listen for understanding first before asking him to listen to you. “What’s up?” you ask. That’s when he drops into a full-fledged meltdown, screaming and kicking at you. This was not in the script running through your head.
It would be really easy at this point to yell back at him. Some days that might even feel great to do – at least for the moment, but in the end you know it’s not where you want to go. This is when you have to remind yourself that you will ultimately get him to clean up because working together is an important value in your family. You will also teach him that even if he is frustrated or angry it’s not acceptable to throw one’s self on the floor kicking and screaming.
Trouble is before any of those lessons can begin you’ve got to calm him down. Trouble is before any of those lessons can begin you’ve got to calm him down.
Planning for success matters: Set up calming baskets
Fortunately for you, you have been proactive. Previous to this moment, when all was tranquil the two of you created a calming basket.
- Together you filled it with things that help him feel peaceful inside. There’s a stuffed animal, his favorite truck, Legos, a book and trains.
- You talked about this moment, explaining that if there was a time he was really sad, or really mad that he could go to the basket and choose anything in it to play with until his body felt calm.
- You’d even play acted stomping your foot and being really mad and moving to the calming basket.
Now you are thanking your lucky stars that it’s sitting right over in the corner. It’s easy for you to say, “I can see you are not ready to clean up. You need to go to your calming basket until your body is quiet and you are ready to work together. You can let me know when you are ready.”
The great thing about your proactive planning is that the basket is right there (you put one on each level of the house), you don’t have to drag him up the stairs to his room. Nor shut a door knowing he’d just kick it anyway and then you’d be angry that he’s destroying his room. But here’s the challenge. He actually goes to the calming basket and is now playing happily with his Legos. You are amazed and elated, but then a thought creeps into your head.
Shouldn’t he be suffering? Isn’t this supposed to be a punishment? Let’s see a little misery here.
Do we have to suffer to learn?
It’s an interesting question and one we often debate in our parent groups. But Lynn and my philosophy is that children do not have to be punished, nor do they have to be miserable. They just need to do what they were originally asked to do in an appropriate manner. After they are calm, if they didn’t clean up, they’ll need to go back and clean up. If they hit someone when trying to get a toy, they’ll have to go back and use words to ask, “May I please have a turn?” If they threw something, they’ll have to roll it, or hand it over respectfully.
But it’s not easy to watch them happily snuggling with their blanket or even tougher if they’ve asked you to hug them while they calmed. It can feel like they are getting away with something, or being reinforced for poor behavior. This is why you don’t stop here.
Once your child tells you he’s ready, you follow through. “Do you want to put away the blocks or the books?” you offer, as he then helps you to pick up. That’s it. Lesson learned.
But what if he tells you he’s ready and he’s really not?
- This is where you describe what you see and hear that tells you he is still in the “red zone.”
- “I can still hear the mad tone in your voice.”
- Or, “I I can still see the tension in your body or the angry look on your face.”
- Then you direct him back to his basket and say, “This time, I will decide when you are ready.”
Teach what it means to be calm:
Once he’s back at the calming basket, you watch knowing that you will teach him what you are going to see or feel or hear that lets you know he is now calm.
- “I will be able to know you are ready when:
- Your voice is happy again,
- Or your shoulders are relaxed,
- Or you can look at me and talk to me,
- Or your body is not moving fast,
- Or you are not kicking your legs.”
Wait: The first few times you do this it can take a long time, so start on the weekend, when you don’t have to be anywhere. It may be 15 minutes, perhaps even an hour initially before you can state, “Now I see you are ready. Your body is still. Your voice is calm. You can try again.”
We know you are thinking to yourself, “I don’t have time for this!” But if you make time for it, what happens is your child begins to be able to predict what’s going to happen if he doesn’t work with you. Suddenly he doesn’t even have to go to his calming basket; he just stops and tries again. What’s funny is that when this begins to happen parents often come back to us complaining. “He just stopped and did what I asked!” When we inquire, “What’s the problem?” There is a long pause and that lingering question – shouldn’t he have to suffer?
Or, is it acceptable to simply learn that if mom or dad asks you to do something, you do so respectfully and appropriately, otherwise he or she will wait you out while you calm and then you’ll just have to do whatever they asked anyway. Lesson learned? Mom and dad are predictable which builds trust and keeps your child working with you even during the tough times.
Next time…. How to respond when your creative little one comes up with the third option you didn’t offer! Yet despite your best intentions, when you ask your child to pick up his toys, he refuses.