In my family, Christmas of 2015 will forever be remembered as the one when our son had a throw-yourself-on-the-floor-scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs meltdown after the last present had been opened.
It was EPIC.
The poor kid was totally overloaded by the excitement and anticipation of the big day, and the fact that it was over felt unbearable to him.
Looking back on that day, you’d think that I would be a little disappointed that that happened. I mean, it was Christmas! A day of joy and celebration, not of epic 3-year-old meltdowns!
But I’m actually pretty glad it happened, and here’s why.
(First, though, let me clarify that I’m talking about meltdowns, which are inherently different than tantrums.
I’m sure there are official definitions of these terms in the realm of child psychology, but for me, the two are different in that tantrums are about defiance and cries for attention, while meltdowns are about an overload of strong, difficult feelings. Tantrums, then, require loving discipline—but such discipline is useless in the face of a meltdown.
Also, I want to mention that my child is not on the autism spectrum and does not have sensory processing disorder. My understanding is that in the presence of those issues, meltdowns may need to be handled differently.)
With those caveats in mind, here’s why I’m thankful for my kid’s meltdowns.
I’m thankful because meltdowns mean my child feels things BIG.
My 3-year-old has this little move we affectionately call the “flap-a-doo.”
When he gets really excited about something, his entire body fills up with energy and he flaps his arms a bit like a chicken, which sounds odd but is actually really, really adorable.
This flapping action—this overload of joy and excitement that energizes his entire body—is one of my favorite things about him.
But of course, the fact that he feels the good stuff in life that strongly means he often feels the difficult stuff pretty strongly too—and sometimes that results in a meltdown.
I refuse to see this as a negative.
Because what’s the alternative? A robot who rarely leaves his emotional equilibrium, even in the face of really wonderful or really devastating news?
Feelings—no matter what they are—are not bad in and of themselves. I want my child to have them, deeply and mightily, even if that means an occasional meltdown.
I’m thankful because it’s my chance to teach him to handle (rather than squash) those big feelings.
We want our children to be happy, of course. That’s a no-brainer.
But because we want them to be happy, when they’re experiencing an emotion that’s a bit challenging—anger, sadness, frustration, fear, etc.—we often just want them to STOP FEELING THAT WAY as quickly as possible.
Sometimes we come right out and say that.
“Just stop crying already!”
Other times we try to logic them out of it.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“It’s not worth crying over.”
But in the face of a meltdown, those statements are useless at best and seriously damaging at worst.
Take anxiety for example. As anyone with even moderate anxiety will tell you, explaining to them why their anxiety is illogical does zero good—plus it sends the message that difficult feelings are bad and to be avoided at all costs.
I want to teach my child how to cope effectively with challenging emotions instead of just stuffing them down or ignoring them completely.
His meltdowns are opportunities for me to teach that lesson—by allowing him to FEEL, first and foremost, and then talking about how best to process and express those feelings the next time around.
I’m thankful because meltdowns help me learn what overwhelms my child.
Based on the epic meltdown of Christmas 2016, our family will be doing things a little differently next holiday season.
Because now we better understand our son’s limits; we have a stronger sense of when there’s just too much of a good thing for him—be it presents, holiday activities, or family gatherings.
While we can’t prevent meltdowns entirely—and based on everything I’ve said already, that’s not really our goal in the first place—we can learn what sorts of environments or stimuli are overwhelming for our child, and try to minimize them or discuss some coping strategies ahead of time.
Through that lens, meltdowns in and of themselves aren’t bad; rather, they’re vital learning opportunities for both parent and child.