Major meltdown: how we got off the merry-go-round

“Can I have this Frozen book? I really want it.”
“But can I have it? It’s the only thing I want. I swear, it’s the only thing!”
“Why can’t I get it? I really, really, really want it!”
“I just want it.”
“If I can have it, I’ll never get another Frozen thing again!”
(Now this I considered.)

Imagine several rounds of this conversation, quickly becoming fraught with emotion, the 5-year-old clutching the book against her chest with both arms, crying until she was hyperventilating, unable to get each word out intelligibly, growing so hot I had to strip off her coat mid-meltdown.

Imagine a tiny bookstore on a small island, with us seemingly the only people there when the meltdown began, but somehow a half dozen people appearing by the time we escaped.

And those people had plenty of time to appear, because this meltdown was on a merry-go-round. My responses seemed to be failing me.

“You really want that book.”
“You’re sooo upset. You wish you could have that book! And I said ‘Not this time.'”
“We’re not here to buy a book. We can enjoy looking at the books.”
“I hear that you want it. You know what: I bet you can find that book at the library and read it with your mama.”
“Look at me. I will not be buying the book. You may put it back, or I can put it back.”

The easy way out seemed unavailable: She had that book in a death grip, so I couldn’t just pick her up and carry her out the door. Finally, she handed me the book. I put it back (“I won’t tell you where it goes, because I don’t want to put it back”), and we sped outta there.

Thinking about it afterward, I suspect what wasn’t working is that, after acknowledging her feelings, I was either letting my words hang or giving logical answers to her cries of “Why can’t I?” Next time I’d acknowledge her feelings, go straight to a can-do (“You can put it back or I can put it back”), and repeat.

That’s the Language of Listening framework I’ve been practicing: Say what you see. Give a can-do. Name a strength.

I never got around to naming a strength. The meltdown lasted much longer than probably anyone was comfortable with. But what I found interesting is that I stayed calm the entire time.

“Say what you see” allowed me to stay in the present moment, noticing things as they were happening: “You’re burning up, sweetie. I need to take off your coat.” “Your breathing is so fast. Come here. Deep breath. Phoooooo.” (I’d never seen her hyperventilate like that before, so I’m guessing it was about more than the book.) I barely noticed the other people standing around — at least not in a way that clouded my decision-making with guilt and shame. I didn’t feel the urge to yell or whisper furious threats or give in and buy the book. I didn’t try to yank the book out of her hands and create an ugly power struggle. Instead, I repeatedly (if imperfectly) met her with acknowledgment and matter-of-fact boundaries. In return, she eventually handed me the book and walked out of the bookstore with me.

Most importantly, our relationship wasn’t damaged. As we walked outside, her little hand reached for mine. She moved into brief, genuine sadness over the book. That was a good sign that she was able to process whatever was going on for her. And on the drive home, she “wrote” me a note: “To Tracy: I love you, and I will never stop loving you.”

I love you, little one. Language of Listening, too.

Get Language of Listening: THE missing step in positive parenting

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

4 thoughts on “Major meltdown: how we got off the merry-go-round

  1. Tracy, such a beautiful example of Language of Listening. What you accomplished by simply validating what she wanted and holding your boundary was what many parents would consider a miracle: you stayed calm, you created a safe space for her to work through some really big emotions with your support and WITHOUT SHAME IN PUBLIC (!!!), she met her need for power with the tiny act of not telling you where the book went, she handed the book back to you on her own, she reached for your hand and walked out with you, she wrote you the sweetest love note I’ve ever read,…and you wish it had been quicker. Wow! Just wow! How about this as a guest post on my blog?

    1. Thank you, Sandy. Tiny act of not telling where book went: Ah, yes! That’s great. You’re more than welcome to use this as a guest post.

  2. Tracy, that is a most beautiful story. It brought tears to my eyes. I have to say, please forgive me for the times I didn’t handle your few tantrums as well! Love you so much, mom.

    1. Aww, thanks, Mom. Glad you remember me having only a few tantrums. 😉 I love you, too.

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