This past spring there were moments – minutes, even hours – when kindergarten couldn’t come fast enough.
I hate to say that, but it’s true.
One morning stands out vividly in my memory. It started off so well. Bee entertained himself in the play room, occasionally wandering over to the kitchen table to tell me something as I sipped my coffee and crossed a couple of little things off my to-do list, both of us still in our pajamas. Parenting bliss, right?
“Hey, bud, it’s time to get dressed. We have a lot of errands to run this morning.”
“Play with me first, Momma.”
“Okay. We’ll play for ten minutes and then we’ll go upstairs.”
I set the kitchen timer and joined him by the Legos, proud of myself for recognizing that he needed some Mommy-time and our morning would be a smoother one, if I gave him that few minutes.
At least, that was my expectation. The timer went off and, as we headed upstairs, Bee announced he was going to play his iPad after he got dressed. Now what I should have said was: “If you get dressed quickly, you might have a few minutes to play before we leave.” Instead, I told him we didn’t have time and launched into a lecture about how, if he had gotten dressed earlier like I had asked, he would have had time. As you can imagine, my lecture didn’t go over well (duh!) and it was all downhill from there.
Picture: Child, crying and rolling on his floor, refusing to get dressed, upset that iPad time was being denied. Momma, angry and frustrated as all efforts to set limits only escalate the situation. Then screaming (me, not him) and more crying (him). Finally, I shut myself in the bedroom and turned up the radio as loud as I could to drown out the crying. This was not how our morning was supposed to go!
At this point we had been been having way more of these moments than I’d like. For whatever reason, my five-year-old was in a phase where not getting his way resulted in crying fits accompanied by you-can’t-make-me defiance. And, especially if I was in a rush or already stressed out, I was not handling them well.
My relationship with this little sweetheart had been so easy until this point and I was heartbroken by how things were going.
The good news is that these days tantrums are few and far between now! YAY!!!!
So, what was our secret?
First, after calming my butt down on that particularly awful morning, I went through the 5 steps I recently described for handling challenging behaviors, and started off with a little assessment of the situation. (Yes, I really do I use those steps!) A good understanding of why your child is having meltdowns – the general trigger and underlying reason – should be your guide to coming up with a plan.
In our case, Bee’s tantrums usually felt like a power struggle and a way to communicate his anger. He is five, has good coping and communication skills, and tantrums were actually rare when he was a toddler. Because the trigger was always not getting his way, his meltdowns seemed like an attempt to get what he wanted, even if it didn’t work, and to let us know he was angry.
And things really fell apart when I responded with consequences (for not cooperating) or anger (raising my voice), resulting in Bee hitting a point of no return. Ultimately, when I asked him what he needed, his answer was almost always “a snuggle.”
We tried a few different things, including working on some gentler and more positive ways of saying no. One strategy worked especially well, but I thought I’d share the others here too because what works best for one kid may not be the solution for another.
First, I offered Bee an incentive to hold himself together and not to have tantrums. For a kid who has the skills to respond differently, a little motivation has the potential keep those tantrums in check. Bee really liked this idea, so we created a very simple chart where he could earn a “surprise” for a tantrum-free day. I wrote various rewards on slips of paper – things like extra tv time, an extra bedtime story, a special dessert, or 20 minutes of “special time” with Mommy – and put them in a container that he could draw from.
The Cool-Down Corner
Together, Bee and I created a special place he could go when he started to get upset. In our case, we used a small toddler tent and dubbed it “cool-down corner.” Bee loved the idea and enthusiastically helped create his special spot, making a “do not enter” sign and filling the tent with pillows. We added a list of activities that might help him cool down – drawing, reading, snuggling or talking to a stuffed animal – and then we actually practiced using the corner, so that Bee would know what to do when he needed it.
When Bee started to meltdown, I offered him two choices: Go to his “cool-down corner” or have a snuggle. In the end, he never actually used his cool-down corner and always opted for a snuggle instead (helping me to realize just how important it is for him to connect with me when he’s upset).
But this idea does work well for a lot of kids. For children who need help developing their coping skills it can be a great tool. It can even be used hand-in-hand with incentives – instead of rewarding kids for not tantrumming, reward them for using their cool-down corner!
The Power of Prediction
My husband gets 100% of the credit for this strategy, which ultimately was the one that worked best for us. It’s simple – before I tell Bee “no” to something he wants, I ask him, “If I say no, are you going to throw a fit and end up with consequences, or do you think you can handle it calmly?” Simply predicting for him what could happen and reminding him of the different choices will play out works wonders in heading off a meltdown. Truly, I was amazed at how rarely tantrums occurred once I started using this strategy!
Now kindergarten is only three weeks away and I have no doubt I’m going to miss my baby when he heads off to school!