Illustration by Chris Roe

Last week I wrote about how Birdy doesn’t do too well with eating her lunch at school.  And the worst part of this isn’t the wasted food or the frustration of emptying another lunchbox into the bin – the worst bit is the after school meltdown.

We try to walk to and from school as much as we can.  After school she’s usually quite tired so if she hasn’t eaten or drunk much that’s when the probability of a meltdown skyrockets. Ever since she was a toddler, Birdy becomes miserable if her blood sugar gets low. She used to wake up totally feral from her afternoon nap.  Sometimes the only cure was a cup of warm milk or a tiny bit of something sweet to snap her out of it until I could get some real food into her.

The most recent meltdown was over chocolate.  We were walking home and she asked me if she could have a little bit of chocolate when we got home.  I said ‘Yes, when we get home you can have two squares of chocolate.’  Last time, when she’d had three squares of chocolate, she’d had trouble falling asleep at night so I thought I’d let her have a smaller amount this time.  Well instead of ‘thanks Mum’ we had tears and screaming and throwing things on the ground because she wanted three squares not two.  This went on for quite some time, right outside the shops where all the other mums and kids from the school were congregating.  It was so much fun!  NOT!  I didn’t give in to the tantrum, and needless to say she didn’t get any chocolate, but boy, it took us a very long time to get home!

The other major tanty was in the first week of school, which was also the first week of swimming lessons.  We made the mistake of going home in between school and swimming. Once we got home she didn’t want to go out again and threw a massive tanty in the house, in the car, and on the way to the pool, screaming that she was NOT going to do swimming.  She was extremely tired so in one sense it was fair enough that she didn’t want to go.  And if she’d simply said, “I’m too tired to go swimming” I might have given her the week off, but after the massive barney I felt I had to send her.  Otherwise she might have got the message that all you have to do to get out of swimming is throw a massive wobbly.  Once she got in the water she fine – I think the sensation of the water on her skin was actually quite soothing.

So how should we deal with tantrums when they happen?  According to child psychologists, when a kid has a tantrum its because they’ve lost control of their emotions, so the first thing you have to do is help them get back in control.  That means we have to stay calm and not lose control of ourselves and also not get anxious about what other people are thinking.  The easiest way to help them calm down is to ‘bring them in close’ physically.  This is a tactic I learned from child psychologist Louise Porter and it definitely works, but it can take time.  It’s much harder to do it successfully when you’re in a hurry.  So firstly you have to drop the expectation of being on time, or getting home quickly and deal with the situation first.  Once they’ve calmed down you can address their physical needs (tiredness, hunger, cold, overstimulation) or whatever has prompted them to feel out of sorts in the first place.  Then when everybody is feeling calm you can reaffirm your message and boundaries (you have to go to swimming, or you can’t have the chocolate or whatever the issue is).

Obviously its better if you can prevent the tantrum in the first place.  Aaron Wright from Breakfast with Aaron and Erin sometimes talks about the idea of “Setting up for Success” and that’s definitely the best way of preventing tantrums. So on Fridays when Birdy is really tired after a big week of school we now sometimes drive home instead of walking.  I’ve also started taking along cold snacks or drinks to have on the way home as fuel for the walk.  I’ve never really had to deal with tantrums much before now, but I think it’s helpful to look for the pattern of when and why they happen and try to change the circumstances around them.  For us, the pattern has been straight after school, when she was tired and hungry.   Thankfully the hungry part is an easy one to fix.  And so far it’s working.  Since I started arriving at school with a snack or a cold apple juice, we haven’t had a meltdown again, so let’s hope it continues.  Of course kids aren’t the only ones who have meltdowns, so it’s a good reminder to look after ourselves as well.  We need to make sure we don’t neglect our physical and emotional needs.  If we’re tired, hungry, dehydrated or not getting any time out, we’re probably just as likely to lose our cool as they are.

Do your kids throw wobblies?  What are the triggers?  How do you set up for success?

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