meltdown or calling your bluff?
Your kid is acting out, being a jerk actually. Parenting experts tell you to course correct your child at that very moment. So you send Johnny to his room or Susie leaves the birthday party early. It isn’t fun or even easy but you must discipline them for their poor behavior.
But, what if Johnny lost it because he saw the peas touching the potatoes on the plate? The plate went sailing across the room and hit the cat. The whole family is in chaos, the night ruined and you are in tears.
Johnny wasn’t being a jerk. Johnny’s OCD kicked in and he was fighting for his life. Peas and potatoes triggered his flight or fight adrenal system and he did what you would have done if you saw a snake on your plate.
Susie melts down at her best friend’s birthday party thrashing about on the ground like a toddler having a tantrum, except Susie is nine years old. The other children are terrorized; their moms shielding them from your monster. Susie doesn’t want to leave the party and breaks down in tears. You get in the car with a hysterical child, your head hanging low, knowing those moms will spend the rest of the party discussing your parenting skills and Susie’s evil nature.
Susie isn’t evil, sometimes she gets overwhelmed by too much stimulation and acts out. Within moments of her meltdown she is back to being a cheerful little girl, doesn’t understand what the fuss is about and can not understand why she must leave.
But you know what? Sometimes Johnny is a jerk, just like any twelve-year boy can be. And Susie can manipulate a situation to get what she wants, just like any intelligent nine-year old girl can.
So, how can you tell the difference? I have been walking this line for fourteen years and I still haven’t figured it out. Often I can see it in their body language or their eyes. But have I enabled jerky behavior blaming it on their mental illness? You bet. Have I lost my cool when they were in the throes of a meltdown? Oh ya.
I have been dealt a challenging hand, and the rules keep changing. (the hormone years!) but I have learned a few strategies along the way.
- Do not try to talk to them rationally when they are having a hard time. Johnny cannot begin to explain why peas and potatoes shouldn’t touch.
- Validate their experience, “I see you are really struggling right now.”
- Try to maintain your cool, if possible. Susie has embarrassed you at the party, but yelling, threatening or getting physical is only going to escalate her instability.
- Afterwards, show them unconditional love in the way you know they will understand.
- Don’t pretend it never happened, just because they couldn’t help themselves doesn’t mean they shouldn’t know how their actions impacted others.
Your ace in the hole? The love you have for your child. There will be days you will win and days you will lose, so be gentle with yourself – you are doing the best you can.