Q: Our 6-year-old is generally a good kid, but we have been struggling with his strong personality and demands on the family; we also have a 5-year-old and a 11/2-year-old. We are struggling with how to help our 6-year-old work through his emotions when things don't go his way. For example, he had an hour-long meltdown when we went to an indoor playground that wasn't his first choice. He might have a meltdown when we have an after-school activity planned but he wants to stay home. His meltdowns are ruining activities for everyone in the family, stressing everyone out and causing us to make changes to our plans to cater to him (which is unfair to the other kids). We'd really like to help him work through this while not letting him take control of the family. What do you suggest?
A: Your phrasing of "how to help him work through this" is the exact intention we want to bring to your son. Rather than punishing or rewarding your son for certain behaviors, let's zoom out and take a look at his intensity.
Is it normal for 6-year-olds to be intense, demanding and difficult? Sure. Some adults are known to be like this from time to time, too! Intense feelings are part of the human experience. It is the frequency, duration and intensity of your son's meltdowns that are important in assessing what these behaviors are telling us about his interior world.
The after-school meltdown is common in children. Although your son may have agreed to a prior event, the hour after school is often the worst for children. Hunger, exhaustion, overstimulation and lack of movement add up to meltdowns for even the most regulated children. Additionally, if your child suffers from any executive functioning disorders or lacks problem-solving skills, you will see even more extreme meltdowns after school, triggered by the most innocuous topics. This is maddening because in your rational brain, you have already agreed to what you are doing and are probably surprised by your son's big emotions.
In the other example, your son threw a fit about attending an indoor playground he did not prefer. Taken at face value, he looks like a spoiled brat, but it sparked a number of questions:
» Is there jealousy between him and his younger siblings, leading him to assume that any decision that he doesn't like shows your "preference" for them?
» Do you assume your 6-year-old can roll with anything that happens, or has he always needed more preparation for what to expect? Do you prepare him for what is going to unfold?
» Did his expression of a legitimate disappointment upset you, upping his frustration into a meltdown?
» Does he have an undiagnosed issue that is preventing his brain from feeling relaxed and flexible?
Each question requires you to have a slightly different perspective on your son's behaviors and, hence, a different set of solutions presents itself. For instance, if your son is jealous of his siblings (the 5-year-old comes right on his heels), he will act out even if it is against his best interests. Why? Every child's deepest need is to belong to his main attachment (you, his parents), and when that attachment feels threatened, he panics, loses his ability to stay rational and does whatever it takes to get his parent's eyes. This sounds manipulative, but it is a deep, unconscious need. He is doing his best to belong to the family; it's just that the best he can do is pretty disruptive.
If your son is acting out because he likes another playground better, this makes me think that he is sticking to his narrative and the picture of where he thought he was going pretty tightly. Rigidity in children happens for a variety of reasons: anxiety, giftedness, attention issues, etc. Everyone has an image of what they expect, and it's frustrating when something that doesn't follow the script happens. Some quickly scan their ability to change what is happening, and if they can't, they adapt and carry on. Others will grow frustrated and become stuck there. This looks like, well, a total meltdown. There isn't adaptation to the reality and there isn't acceptance. Again, this is not because your son is "bad" or wants to ruin the family outings or wants to be a brat. He is simply lacking in maturity and emotional skills to cope with the change.
If you are punishing, shaming or becoming angry with your son every time he has an outburst, here is a little mantra you can remember: Frustration plus frustration equals more frustration. If you critique or punish your son's big emotions, he will not simmer down and "learn his lesson." You are trying to call on skills and an emotional maturity that are simply not there. This is doubly true if there is an undiagnosed issue afoot. Doubling down on punishment or consequences will only add frustration to this already fraught scenario.
What should you do?
» If your parental intuition is telling you that something else is going on with your 6-year-old's intensity, it is appropriate to call the pediatrician. A thorough visit will reveal next steps for your son.
» Until then, set up a routine of meeting with your son before events to review what to expect. This includes what and where you are going, potential pitfalls, and building in "success steps." This means that you and your son can create a list of ideas to smooth transitions. Is there a bag of snacks he needs to bring? (Balancing blood sugar is important.) Are there toys or books that can help a transition? Also, creating a plan for when things go wrong is a huge part of the success steps. This means that when your son gets upset, you both have a plan for what will happen. Maybe you will step outside. Maybe you will get on your knee and listen. Maybe he can sit by himself for a bit.
» Decide on a plan of action for when the you-know-what hits the fan. This is the plan that you are seeking to avoid with your success steps, but you must be prepared to de-escalate the situation. This may also include deciding, on the fly, that your 6-year-old cannot cope with going somewhere and everyone must stay home. Is this fair? No, but family life isn't fair, and the meltdown at the indoor playground simply may not be worth it. If you decide that you all are going to go and the meltdown occurs, how can you peacefully and calmly handle the meltdown? Without this plan, you will feel even more out of control, so do your best to have something in your back pocket.
» Above all, don't start doling out threats, punishments or rewards when a meltdown occurs. You are in the midst of a storm, and there is simply too much stress and anger to lead to any teachable moments. You can work on communicating with your child, but the time and the place must be filled with connection and encouragement.
I find Ross Greene's books helpful, particularly "The Explosive Child." Good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.