Understanding the meaning underlying your preschooler’s meltdowns and aggressive behavior and helping your child expand her own understanding of this behavior will minimize outbursts. Your preschooler’s meltdowns and aggressive behaviors can seemingly come out of the blue and can bring you to your knees. It ‘s tough to remain calm and attempt to understand what this outburst means yet alone, help your child understand her feelings, or even avoid the meltdown. Below is a familiar scenario:
There’s nothing for dinner; you have to get to the store. It’s been a long day and your 4 year old seems tired. Yet you must quickly buy fish and vegetables. You’re in the produce aisle and Sammy notices carrots in the cart. Suddenly there’s a piercing scream, whining about how he hates carrots. Next, you are being pushed and punched. Other shoppers are staring. Sammy is flailing on the floor. You are embarrassed and desperately worried that you’ll loose it. First you try calmly telling him to stop, “It’s never O.K. to hit mommy!” He’s not listening. Things are escalating. You realize that you have to abandon your shopping and get home. You play a favorite soothing song in the car, and fortunately Sammy settles. You calm yourself and review what just happened.
When your child has a meltdown, she is attempting to communicate with you. Every behavior represents your child’s best attempt in that moment at communication. Usually the more you help your child feel understood, namely that you “get it” and provide her with alternate ways of expression, the more the meltdowns will subside. Let’s return to Sammy and his mom. Sammy is not yet able to articulate that perhaps he had some tough interactions at preschool that day; maybe play did not go his way, he did not nap, his teacher got mildly annoyed, and he missed his parents. The tantrum might have been avoided if Sammy ‘s parent could have soothingly said, “Maybe you want mommy to know that you are tired, hungry, or cranky, and you can’t deal with a noisy, busy store. You need home and special time. And you wish all the shopping for the week was done on Sunday. Prepare your insides. We are buying two things very quickly. Then we’ll go home for special time.”
Take time for preparation if you anticipate that there could be a melt down. Explain all the relevant details ahead of time and perhaps create a signal. For example, “if you start to feel upset, tug on my sleeve, then I’ll know, and we’ll leave.” Best of all, attempt to learn your kid’s triggers and try avoid going to the store at the end of a long day.
Meltdowns frequently represent blocked frustration. Our challenge as parents is to maintain empathy for our child especially when she misbehaves. Try remember that this behavior is not random; it’s your child’s best attempt at a solution to his or her problem.
About the author:
Dr. Rebecca Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been working with children and their parents for over 20 years. Her private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco focuses on early intervention with children and their parents. In addition to working in infant mental health, she specializes in autistic spectrum disorders; attachment difficulties; social skill development; and school related issues. She has collaborated with CW over the last eight years. As a parent, she has combined her own parenting experiences and professional knowledge to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges of parenting and how particular parenting tools can ease this journey. Her passion is to use relationship-based therapy to enhance social and emotional growth in children and re-teach adults (parents, educators, and providers) how to play with abandon, which creates deeper intimacy and understanding of children.
Rebecca Schwartz, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist. | Adult, Adolescent, and Child Psychotherapy
2434 Milvia St Berkeley CA 94704 | 672 Second Ave San Francisco CA 94118