A Successful Meltdown

(At the time of my writing this, my son was 3 years old.)

Yesterday evening was the best meltdown we’ve had in a long time.

How’s that for a starter sentence?

This is an incredibly long post, but I wanted to detail out exactly how this went and what I was thinking and doing, so you can get an idea of what this looks like sometimes. I’m not saying it because I’m perfect or do this every time. The only reason why I even find this noteworthy in my own life is because I so often *don’t* get it right!

My son “Apollo” (not his real name, but the name I’m using for him on this page) was playing with a big red firetruck he has. As he so often does, he had a really cool idea for something it could do, that turned out to be physically impossible. That child is an absolute engineer/architect/dreamer — but his dreams are unhindered by the laws of physics, and sometimes that’s workable, but sometimes it’s not.

I was making sauce for dinner in the kitchen, next to the living room where he was playing. I could hear him starting to get frustrated and cry. “I’ll be there in just a second to see if I can help, buddy.” I could tell immediately that what he was trying to do wasn’t going to work.

✨ First change from what I used to do: He was begging me to help him. I could tell it wasn’t going to work. But when I just sit back and tell him that it’s not going to work, he feels like I’m ignoring his words (that he has worked soooo hard for!) He feels like I’m just refusing to help. He learns through doing, and he can’t yet grasp that I can learn just by seeing him do it, or even by predicting what will happen. So I join him in the doing: I try to make his firetruck do the impossible thing. Of course, it doesn’t work.

We try again and again, like 15 times. Apollo sobs out “Some tape!”

✨ Second change from what I used to do: I’m fully certain that tape will not fix this problem, but what does it hurt? What am I losing here, a strip of duct tape? So I get him some tape and let him try to fix it himself. (Which is really a 3rd change from what I used to do — because there was an interim where I would try to apply the tape myself so it “looked good”. Now I just hand him tape and let him try to solve the problem.)

The tape doesn’t work, because tape as a solution to this problem didn’t make logical sense in the first place. My son is getting more and more worked up and sobbing while he tries to make the firetruck stay the way he wants it to.

I am sitting there thinking in my head, “I know exactly how this goes. We’ve done this a zillion times. He keeps getting more and more worked up about it, he escalates to screaming and melting down and throwing things and me putting the toy away for safety. I wish I knew what to do better. I wish I knew how to help before he got this escalated. But it’s not like I can keep him from building things or playing with his toys…ugh.”

All the while, I was voicing out loud every once in awhile, “Ugh, this is SO frustrating. I wish the firetruck would just stay the way you want it. Ugh. Dang it. This is so hard.” Not constant, not overwhelming him with my words, but giving him some words if he wants them.

(His words at this time are just “BIX IT, BIX IT, BIX IT,” over and over. ✨ Fourth change from what I used to do: I used to say to him over and over, “I can’t fix it, buddy.” “I can’t, it’s not possible to fix.” Finally I’ve decided to take “fix it” and abstract it out to a less literal meaning. As if he were saying “I WISH THIS COULD BE FIXED,” and I could side *with* him, rather than as if he were saying “MOM, YOU’RE PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS,” which makes me feel defensive *against* him.)

Then there was a split second, where there seemed to be a lull in his screaming for just a second, and something clicked in my head.

✨ I’ve done this before. I’ve done this a zillion times before. Some days he’s frustrated at what he’s building but he can snap out of it. This is not one of those times. He is not going to snap out of this until we’ve gone through a full meltdown. Like, I’m not going to talk him out of it or dissuade him from it so…lean in, I guess.

I said, “Man. This truck is SO FRUSTRATING. Do you want me to put it away?”

Apollo echoed, “Put it away.”

He might have been telling me, he might’ve just been echoing. (He echoes a lot.) I picked the truck up and carried it out of the room (fully expecting him to run after me.) If he had run after me, I would have improvised some kind of a goodbye ritual as we put the truck beyond the baby gate in another room, and then I would have picked him up and carried him back to the room we were playing in if I’d had to. But, surprisingly, he stayed put. Even more surprisingly, he wasn’t screaming or crying.

When I got back into the living room, that’s when he absolutely melted. “RED FIRE TRUUUCK,” he sobbed, throwing himself into my lap and screaming.

✨ But he knew where the truck was, and he knew why I had put it away, and he had (sort of) agreed to putting it away. So — another shift here — I interpreted his words differently. It’s hard when I only get part of sentences anyway. Taking it personally would have meant I assumed he was saying “get me back the red fire truck” or something like that. Instead, I just took it as a statement of grief. Darn that red fire truck! I just sat with him curled up in my lap and patted his back.

✨ I thought to myself, “good thing I’ve been putting on quiet piano music on the Alexa every day and I have something else for my ears to listen to. That helps me stay much more regulated.”

I thought to myself, “Shoot, where are my earplugs? I think they’re upstairs. Okay. I’ll go get them if I need to. How am I? Am I feeling screamy/meltdown-y myself? No, I don’t think I am. I’ll keep an eye on that.”

He kept sobbing and, curled up in my lap, started rubbing his lip on my sweatpants. He loves to rub his lip on his blanket or his finger as a calming, coping strategy, and sometimes it extends to whoever he’s hugging at the time. The light touch is really cringey to me. Another day, I might have set a boundary around this if I couldn’t handle it. I could have moved him, offered him his blanket, or something else. ✨ It’s my body and I get to make the choices around it — not have to be a martyr for my children. But today I could handle it, so I didn’t stop him.

I did say, “Hey buddy, there’s sauce on the stovetop. I need to go stir it and then I’ll come right back.” When I got up, his cries got louder and more desperate again. I did what I told him, though. I stirred it, turned the heat down as low as it would go, and came right back. He didn’t curl back up on me, but sat next to me, trying to settle down.

By now, the crying noise was starting to wear on me, even with the piano music, and I was considering whether I needed to go get earplugs in order to stay regulated as his parent. Instead ✨ I took a deep breath and let it all out through pursed lips, like blowing out a candle, gently blowing toward his face so that it would get his attention. (Not harshly or to annoy him.)

Apollo looked at me. I did it again, loudly taking a deep breath, loudly and slowly blowing it out. He was interested, so I kept doing it, like 10 or more times. By now I was fully regulated again and thinking of a mantra in my mind. I was thinking, “I will share my calm with you.”

When we had sat there calming down long enough that I was worried about the sauce, I said, “Hey buddy. I have to go stir the sauce again.”

He wasn’t crying, but now he started to cry.

✨ I said, “Do you want to come with me and watch?”

So he followed me into the kitchen. (I would have offered to let him stir it, but he’s tentative around the stove and I’m happy for him to stay that way for now because he can reach everything else.) He watched me stir it and I narrated what I was doing to him.

Once I had gotten the food prepped and in the oven, I turned on dance music, and we had a huge dance party for 15 minutes while it cooked, to finish out the stress cycle with some body movement and wiggle all those emotions out.

And like an hour later, he wrapped himself up in his baby blanket and said to me unprompted, “The big red fire truck.”

I wasn’t sure if he was asking for it back. If he was, I would’ve gotten it and we could’ve tried again. But I just said, “Yeah?”

He nodded. “Mom tried to help. Can’t fix it. Sad.”

I said “Oh, yeah. That is what happened.”

And then we went on with our lives.