I’m sure what you wanted to read about today was contagious toddler meltdowns. Just in case the CDC didn’t issue an alert in your area I wanted to let you know there is a contagious disease out there, folks. It does not require direct physical contact yet is highly transferable. Siblings are particularly susceptible to contracting this disease from each other, and thus far I have only found one effective form of prevention and cure: quarantine.
Recently in our house I’ve started to notice a trend. It goes something like this. One child is told “no,” is feeling tired, hungry or generally irritable and proceeds to have a meltdown. Then, out of nowhere, my other child catches this contagious disease and all too soon I have two children infected with the virus known as meltdown. Note: meltdowns can be strictly emotional and need not necessarily mean tantrums. However, they can involve crying, whining, fussiness, and dramatic flailing of appendages.
We do know, however, that sometimes tantrums can be a good thing.
To a certain extent I completely understand this reaction from one sibling – or cousin or friend or other child – to the other. Crying, screaming, tantrums and fussiness are often irritating and offensive to the ears. Even when they are perfectly legitimate. Sometimes I can tell my children genuinely are frightened or upset by the other’s crying. My son gets hurt and screams and before I can dress the wound and kiss it better my daughter starts her own mini-meltdown saying “it’s okay, he’s okay, it’s okay, it’s all better.” Let’s face it, trauma – whether through their own creation or a reaction to a situation – is traumatic.
Some tips on handling the contagious meltdown.
1. Quick assessment of the initial meltdown.
The meltdown usually starts with one child. This is where a quick triage happens. Is someone hurt? Is someone sick? Is someone fussy? This is important because the cause of the initial meltdown will be important determining how to handle the rest. Normally this is self-explanatory or discovered without too much detective work.
I have a degree in Criminology, but have yet to pull out my bag of tricks on the kiddos. If my son is crying and my daughter is standing over him with a guilty look on her face, I have a clue. If my daughter is crying emotionally with her hand shoved in her mouth saying “medicine” I am shown direction. If I tell my son no and he throws himself on the floor, we have a no brainer. Sometimes we just aren’t sure and in this case, do the best you can.
2. If it’s behavioral, a consequence or quarantine.
Sometimes meltdowns should be met with excess love and attention. Sometimes they will be met with consequences. If my daughter is defiant to a request, I may take away a privilege. If a meltdown ensues, it is not okay with me if she spreads this germ to my son who was – until this point – happily eating a pencil. When I know one child is really about to lose it, I move to Operation Quarantine.
If one of my kids is throwing a bit fit (not common, but it does happen) the others will often join until it’s a chorus of such dreadful noises that neighboring cows chime in. In this case, I like to put the child in a separate location so they can have their meltdown in peace. Whether she goes to a chair in another room or her bed, depends on what is most convenient. However, at least get the child out of direct contact with their siblings or playmates. I will say “It’s okay, mommy gets frustrated too, when you are finished I’ll come back” and let them have at it.
My kids respond well to this and aftewards we’re able to talk about it calmly, give lots of cuddles, and move on.
4. If it’s situational, separation to resolve the issue.
If the meltdown occurs due to a fall, physical discomfort or a genuinely distressing circumstance, I still go into Operation Quarantine, but I do it differently. In this case, I would try to quickly occupy or corral my other kids, and take the distressed little one to a quiet place where we can calmly assess the situation. Does he need medicine? Does she need comforting? Is there something they want to say to us? Were they feeling anxious? The reason I find it helpful to move to a quiet place is that often the presence of the other siblings can bring unnecessary energy to the situation.
4. Explain to the other child what is happening.
My 1-year-old son falls and wipes out like nothing I’ve yet to come across. It is not because he’s unattended or left in precarious situations, but… well I have no idea why. He often ends up in distress and cries after tumbles. This is natural and, of course. However, if he cries for a little too long my daughter can fear she is getting the short end of the stick and occasionally begins to meltdown herself. Sort of like when they ask for medicine when they aren’t sick.
In this case, I would explain very clearly what is happening and why I am going to go help her brother and that I’ll be right back. Then I engage in Operation Quarantine simply to comfort my boy. She knows what is happening, understands her brother needs attention and realizes that yes, mommy is coming back and no, mommy has not forgotten her. This becomes less necessary as the kids get older. But I’m currently working with 4 kids 4 and under right now, so they are all tender.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of ignoring.
I don’t advocate ignoring your child or their behavior as an effective parenting strategy, but at times, looking the other way is a powerful tool. I was cooking dinner one evening and was apparently taking too long about it. My daughter contracted the meltdown for no apparent reason and soon enough she’d transmitted the disease to her brother. In a cinematic moment like none I’d witnessed to that point, they were whining, fake crying, throwing themselves on the floor and staring at me.
I was having my own emotional and anxiety-filled meltdown (life gives us these days, does it not?) and started to cry. You’d hate to be a fly on the wall in our house. Then after a few seconds I started to laugh. I had caught the meltdown disease too! I decided I’d tune them out and carry on cooking. This lasted a few minutes and then, suddenly, they both stopped. They started playing together again and laughing. Wow. What a cure! When you know aren’t able to go into Operation Quarantine and you know that they are, in fact, just fine, ignoring can often work wonders.
So the next time you see this disease spreading like wildfire through your living room, Sunday School class, or the playground I hope these tips will help you in your quarantining efforts. Even being aware of the potential for exposure might help you act swiftly with preventative measures. Good luck out there, folks!