Meltdowns and Purple Trees
My oldest daughter plans to be the Queen of Egypt someday. She’s Egyptian-American, so that should qualify her. She is intense, persistent, strong, determined, and sensitive. She displayed leadership qualities at the age of two that both stunned and amused me:
Like the time she marched up to a group of kids who were all older than her at an international church we’d never visited before, held out her hands in the middle of their play and said, “You guys! You guys! Stop! We should do it this way!” Within 60 seconds, a dozen kids were following the commands of this tiny, curly-haired, tutu-wearing dictator. It was a sight to be seen.
So yes, she’ll be a great queen someday, and she knows that Egypt will be ready to have a queen again too (instead of a “boring president”) by the time she grows up.
All of these strong qualities are beautiful. Her intelligence and extraordinary perceptiveness are wonderful! But she’s taking in way more information and emotions than her little brain can process, which easily leads to overwhelm.
Translation: she is the queen of the meltdown.
She completely loses it over the smallest things. I was seriously -- read, desperately -- hoping she would outgrow it by two, then three, then four ... now we’re almost five; and while it has improved, the meltdowns still happen. I quickly realized that none of my parenting books had prepared me for her level of tenacity.
Some people said: “Ignore it, and they’ll stop!” (They didn’t! The screaming can last for hours at a time!) Other experts said, “Give them a time-out!” while still others said time-outs lead to feelings of abandonment and despair; meltdown kids need a “time-in!" And on and on went the conflicting advice. (I was about to have a meltdown myself just trying to figure it out!)
But out of all the conflicting opinions, I found a few things that helped my particular child, like recognizing the different parts of the brain and how they impact a meltdown. (See “The Whole-Brain Child” by Daniel J. Siegel for an in-depth look at this.)
The basic synopsis of the book is that the “fight or flight” part of the brain is what takes over during a meltdown. This is the part of the brain that discards logic like a pair of high heeled shoes while running through the jungle with a monkey chasing you. (Weird that my brain went there, right?)
As long as this part of the brain is in charge, things won’t calm down. The child will continue to be overwhelmed by everything. Emotions rule! If, however, we can somehow get the logic part of the brain stimulated, it can rise up and take charge and things can start to look a little less overwhelming.
There’s a ton of research on this, and I’m not going to go into all of the science; I’m just going to tell you how I utilized this knowledge to stop meltdowns with my daughter.
When she started having a meltdown, I would try and distract her with something very “fact-oriented”. Numbers. Letters. Singing the ABC song. Counting to ten. All of these had mixed success, but what finally worked for me was appealing to her need to correct what was wrong.
I would not make eye contact, but would casually start talking about things around me, and say something wrong like, “Wow, that’s a beautiful tree! Look how purple it is! Isn’t it great that the sky is green today? Have you noticed that we are driving down a pink road?” She could never take it very long before she HAD to correct me.
“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA??? IT’S NOT A PINK ROAD, MOM! BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGHH!”
“It’s not? I thought it was pink! What color is it? I’m pretty sure that’s pink!”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO...IT’S NOT PINK, IT’S BLAAAAAAAAACK!!!”
“Oh, wow, I guess you’re right... it IS a black road. Goodness, I wonder if I was wrong about anything else?”
“You were. *sniff* That was NOT a purple tree and the sky *sniff-snotty-sniff* is NOT green. It’s NEVER green.”
And just like that, the logical side of her brain sparked back into action, and we were able to start the work of calming down and actually addressing the underlying issue. It wasn’t an automatic off-switch, but it did make a big difference in being able to get past the no-awareness-of-anything-except-BIG FEELINGS part of the meltdown. Now that she’s a little older, she totally sees through this tactic, but it still helps.
When feelings are large and in charge, they usually aren’t telling the whole truth. In kids, the emotional overwhelm can come out in a kicking, screaming meltdown, but for us moms, it might show up in anger, in yelling, or a few--dozen--extra chocolate bars. But just like I re-focus my daughter on truth, I find myself using similar tactics in my own head.
When my daughter is having these meltdowns, it's actually a great time for me to practice self-truth-telling and calming down before I address them with her. "I will never be able to make one Target trip without looking like a giant, out of control, hot mess!” my big feelings yell as my kid's screeching comes from the floor. (I may not be yelling with my mouth, but, believe me, my eyes are very loud.)
But I stop, I breathe, and I tell myself big truths. “Someday I will come to Target alone. I will have a latte. It will have an extra shot of espresso. Maybe seven extra shots.”
And then I remind myself that my daughter’s emotions are not my own. I get down on her level, look down the aisle, and say, “Isn’t it nice that the Target floor is all soft like grass? I wonder why they painted all the carts purple today…?”
Anita grew up in Belize as a missionary kid. She has lived in 3 countries and traveled on 5 continents but can't resist the allure of subzero winters so she now lives in MN with her Egyptian husband and two daughters. She blogs about God, motherhood, and appreciating beauty at anitamatta.com, and pretends to be trendy by posting pictures of coffee as @anitafmatta on Instagram.