An Epic Meltdown is a Parenting Opportunity

Epic Meltdown

Well, we had an epic meltdown this week – and oh, what a massive opportunity to fail forward – for all of us! Here’s the story.

My son neglected to unpack his lunch box when he came home from school. It wouldn’t be a big deal if it hadn’t become a more frequent oversight. Keeping routines going is really hard for kids with ADHD (seriously, ANYONE with ADHD!), so I understand the occasional lapse. But it was happening just frequently enough that it was time to re-establish the expectation and the structure. That happens, sometimes. No problem.

Unfortunately, my decision to reinforce our lunchbox-unpacking-structure unhappily coincided with a teenager having a grumpy morning. The combination was electric. My son became triggered before he ever got downstairs, and – truth be told – I didn’t read the signs well enough to take that into account before I continued.

I could have stepped back just enough to give him a moment – I could have handled it at a different time — I could have done a number of things to prevent the situation from escalating. At the very least, a little compassion would have gone a long way!

But I wasn’t paying close enough attention and probably wasn’t having the best morning, myself. The results were… explosive.

For most of the “episode,” to be honest, I was holding calm, being kind but firm. But I was asking for too many things at one time when he was already in a somewhat triggered state – come handle the lunchbox, acknowledge my direction, say yes ma’am (I’m a southerner – it’s important to me!), get your breakfast. He came unglued. In retrospect, I don’t really blame him – I was hardly setting him up for success.

When he responded with a “yes friggin ma’am,” (at least he didn’t ACTUALLY use the F bomb!), I nearly lost it. Truly, I wanted to throw the lunch box at him!

Thankfully, my momentary snap gave way to a clear consequence, and my husband was there to run interference. With reclaimed calm, I lowered the clenched lunchbox, clearly and respectfully removed cell phone and computer privileges (with as little anger in my voice as I could muster), and the energy shifted.

As parents, we want to do all we can (appropriately, of course) to prevent meltdowns , when possible. The last thing we need to do is to push our kids over when they’re already walking on the edge of emotional control. There are a lot of strategies we can use to do that effectively, and you can find many more under the topic of “Emotionality and Impulsivity.”

But sometimes, we need to accept that the best we can do is to navigate meltdowns (ours or theirs) when they happen, defuse them as quickly as possible, and use them as the learning opportunity they are. Because, let’s be serious… no matter how well we manage our emotions, or work with our kids to manage theirs, there are going to be days that meltdowns are just going to happen. Welcome to being human.

The good news is that with every upset, with every tantrum, there’s an opportunity… an opportunity to raise awareness, to teach emotional regulation, to model reclaiming control, to empower our kids to become ever more respectful of and responsible for themselves and those around them.

Rather than seeing every emotional outburst or tantrum as a “crisis,” we do well to see them as powerful opportunities to teach our kids valuable lessons – and to learn a bit more, ourselves, as well.

So yeah, I got to practice what I preach. The “episode” opened the door for a number of important conversations about self-regulation and the challenges of emotional management, as well as a healthy debate about the pros and cons of respecting social norms. (Now, he still doesn’t agree with me about the value of saying “yes ma’am,” but at least he understands my position more clearly, and my expectation stands firm.) I was able to hold my son to consequences without continuing to make him feel “wrong,” and reinforce reasonable expectations for respectful communication . None of this would have happened without the meltdown morning that triggered constructive conversations.

Now I must admit I felt a little “off kilter” that week. It reminded me of the years when meltdowns were quite frequent, and it left me feeling a little drained. But I am grateful for the many conversations we’ve had, the growth that’s taken place, the lessons that have become just a little deeper ingrained. Yes, it would be nice if he were to learn lessons the first time. But honestly, that’s just not going to happen with him very often, and if he’s better this week than he was last, I count that as success!

So, next time a meltdown (yours or theirs) is un-avoided, for whatever reason, I urge you to make the most of it ! Use it (after the heat cools off!) as a chance to express your values, teach coping skills, set clear expectations for the future, model self-management, model taking responsibility for mistakes … the list could go on.

Forgive quickly, and focus on the future, not the past. What do you want your child to learn? THAT’s the true opportunity of an epic meltdown.

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