Public meltdowns can feel embarrassing and awkward, leading us as parents to hit the “oh crap button.” And while it may be easy to think of meltdowns as the enemy, they are actually the cure.
Meltdowns are a way for children to release stress and other emotions that surface throughout the day. But when we interfere with nature's "pressure relief valve" by attempting to control, rush, or deny a child their emotions - like a bottle with too much pressure - we can be certain that in time the top will pop. If we have a toddler, it's not a matter of if we will witness a full-blown meltdown... but when.
When children are emotionally charged, they cannot think logically or function normally. This is because their "downstairs" brain, known as their brainstem, hijacks their "upstairs" brain, known as the prefrontal cortex. This override causes children to want unreasonable things and places them in an emotional mindset where even the slightest blip in the day can bring them to tears.
Encouraging young children to express themselves, even when this involves a deeply felt cry, allows them to clear their big emotions and access their more receptive and logical upstairs brain. Our ability to respond rather than react to meltdowns and misbehavior has the added bonus of strengthening the parent-child relationship, wiring their brain for connection.
Public Meltdowns: You Are Not Alone
Before we offer up tips for preventing and managing meltdowns, we thought it would be helpful to remind you that if your toddler is prone to throwing it down when you are at grandma’s house, out to eat, or in the middle of the snack aisle you are not alone.
Here are just a few meltdown moments parents in our online community shared:
“My kid was rolling around screaming on the floor of the Space Needle pretty much throughout the entirety of our viewing experience. I silently prayed the needle would launch to space and take me with it.”
“Epic meltdown in a toy store. Baby dolls were flying everywhere, and I had to duck and cover. I was mortified.”
“Yup, my kid lost it in the public bathroom. He was scared of the automatic flush.”
“Middle of Target, while picking out new Superhero underwear, my two-year-old decided he wanted to wear them right then, that minute. When I told him he could wear them when we got home and washed them, he stripped his clothes down to his pull-up and began screaming. I chased my near-naked child around the boy’s clothing section as shoppers walked around us.”
Now that we have shared how normal and, dare we say, helpful meltdowns can be, the truth is, there are things we can do to decrease the likelihood of a meltdown when we go out. Here are four steps to take that help:
1. Pause to connect
Before heading out the door, take a couple of minutes to check in with your kiddo and find out what is going on in their world. Is your child hungry, tired, under- or overstimulated, wanting attention, or having big emotions around little hurts that have happened throughout the day? Pausing to notice your child’s needs before you leave the house will help them regulate their brain, resulting in a smoother ride for everyone.
2. Announce what’s to come
Children are concrete learners and they function best when there are rituals that provide predictability. By knowing what comes next, children feel safe, moving them from their downstairs brain to their upstairs brain, reducing behaviors of fight, flight, or freeze, and increasing receptivity and logical thinking.
Announce the transition with statements like, “Let’s do our one last thing, and then we are going to the store” or “When the timer buzzes, it will be time to get into the car.” For younger children, you may want to break the experience into smaller parts, announcing the transition before each big change. For older children, however, you may be able to say something more general like, “We are going to the park, the store, then coming home for dinner.”
3. Have reinforcements
Wherever you are going, come prepared. If you know your kiddo will be sitting in a car for a long ride or in a place that requires them to “behave” for a period of time like a doctor’s office, bring entertainment such as books, sensory gadgets, or their favorite toy from home. Bringing healthy sustenance such as an apple, cheese stick or granola bar helps keep their blood sugar stable and wards off the hangry monster.
4. Give your child a job
Sometimes it is helpful to give your child a task while out and about. Not only does this fill their power bucket, but it also keeps them in their upstairs brain as they concentrate on the task at hand, and, bonus, it can be fun. Enter the grocery store playing Eye Spy or the 5-4-3-2-1 senses game, or ask them to help you remember two items from your shopping list. If you are going to run multiple errands, enroll your child by inviting them to find items from each place like a scavenger hunt or make them the leader of time in each place by giving them a timer.
Now let's say that you are in the toy aisle of Target and you see that a storm is a-brewin’. That toy that they wanted from this shelf, and that shelf, has sent them from tired and whiney into a full-blown kicking and screaming meltdown. Your instinct is to look over your shoulder, silently praying no one is watching and hoping that this meltdown will end as quickly as it started.
Do you give in, hold to your boundary, or abandon cart and carry her out of the store? What do you do?
As you think through your next move, here are six helpful factors to consider:
1. Consider safety
This one sounds like a no-brainer, but if your child is somewhere where your or their safety is jeopardized, help your child to a safe place before moving to the next steps.
2. Center yourself
If you come into the situation hot and bothered, your child will likely match your energy. Pause to tune into your internal weather, take a deep breath, and find your calm so that you can meet your child where she is with empathy, compassion, and comfort.
3. Focus on your child
Sometimes parents can become so engrossed with what others will think of their tantruming child - this child is a brat, this mom/dad doesn’t know what she/he is doing, she/he is doing it wrong - and our imaginations run wild, pulling us away from the present moment with our child who is struggling.
If you find that there are bystanders watching, imagine that you have blinder sunglasses that block out the peripheral so that you can co-regulate with your child … yes, right there in the middle of aisle five. And sometimes, truth be told, the only person judging us, is us. Release the limiting narratives and guilt so that your energy is focused on being with your child in their moment of need.
4. Communicate safety
Helping your child feel safe and secure assists them in shifting out of their downstairs brain and into their upstairs brain. In a calm voice, you may say something like, “You are safe, and I will stay with you while it is hard.” When we meet an upset child with safe feelings and connection rather than anger and fear, their brain senses this safety and is better able to authentically move through and manage the emotions that are flooding their system.
5. Validate emotions
Empathize with your child about what happened and validate her emotions around it. Let your child know that it is okay to feel sad or mad, that you have too, and it is a normal and temporary process. You may say something like, “You really wanted that toy, didn’t you?” Give your child permission to feel her feelings and work through them fully. Touching on the sore spot (not getting the toy) may elicit more tears, in which case we recommend that you stay listening. Allowing your child to fully express unpleasant emotions enables their natural recovery process.
6. Continue to co-regulate
Once your child appears more regulated, take a couple of moments to further explore her feelings around what happened, and choose calming tools to help her transition. This may happen where you are, or you may choose to move to a more socially acceptable place like the back bedroom, your car, or moving your grocery cart to the corner of the store.
Remember, children are wired to expel their big feelings as a way to process and recover. When we allow children their feelings, we help them to feel both seen and heard. Rather than judging young children as being overly emotional, we can embrace their sensitive nature as natural and healthy.
A public meltdown doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, but rather a learning moment in the broad scope of a day together. We can let children know with our words and actions that wherever we are, emotions are safe to feel.