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Managing Meltdowns and Mandatory Naptime

Q: Can a 9-year-old have a meltdown? My son seems to have such a short fuse and gets very emotional when he is upset, often yelling and even crying. How can i help him to react more appropriately when he is angry?

A: We are born into this world with a broad spectrum of emotions, all of them normal, just waiting to be experienced. While children are young, they feel more than they think. Because a child has limited access to the logic and reason his cognitive brain governs, and because he has limited ability to articulate, this child communicates his feelings to us with his behavior. It’s so important that parents understand this dynamic. Otherwise the parent is quick to respond to only the behavior and words expressed by the child (which are all inappropriate) and will miss what is really behind the short fuse.

Interestingly, this dynamic exists in the reverse as well. We somehow want our children to understand why we get angry and frustrated. We feel an urgency to explain ourselves. But all the child notices is the parent’s behavior, as in, You’re always yelling Mom!

When your son makes an attempt to communicate with you, jump into the role of translator. Stop, make eye contact. and make no effort to correct him. Just listen. Now help him express what he is really feeling with words that express the truth of what he is experiencing. It sounds something like this: “Wow. You really make a lot of sense. It sounds like you’re frustrated because I don’t let you decide what to wear to school. You would like to be able to choose what you wear. You wish I would trust your judgment more. I don’t blame you for feeling this way. Sounds like we need a better plan for choosing your clothes each day.”

Being heard and reassured that what you feel is normal is what prevents anyone from escalating whether they are nine or ninety-nine. The same communication skills can be put to work when this same child is simply determined to push despite your best efforts. That sounds like this: “It’s okay to disagree with me. But it’s not okay to continue behaving like this. You can pull it together here, or pull it together in your room. Either one is okay. You decide.” When conflict erupts, a parent’s job is to connect, reflect, redirect. This is the essence of love and limits—what every child needs.

Q: Our childcare requires a naptime of at least an hour, and our 3-year-old refuses to take a nap. He has never been a good napper. His teachers say that his restlessness is disruptive to the other sleeping children. What should i do?

A: Refuses is an absolute term that would indicate your child is behaving with intent. Three-year-olds are highly reactive, rarely proactive. Therefore, he is not likely planning this. I’m sure he would like nothing more than to please his teachers but he is not in control of his wiry little body and his stimulated little brain. Perhaps he isn’t tired. Perhaps the environment isn’t compatible with what he needs to encourage sleep. No matter, it is always the adult’s responsibility to set a child up for success and this situation isn’t doing that.

In addition, understand that no matter how much a parent talks to, encourages, or even punishes a 3-yearold for things that occur hours earlier in the day, change is not likely to occur. Your child cannot connect your punishment in the evening with his behavior that occurred in the afternoon. Rather, the teachers in his childcare need to assume full responsibility for setting this child up for success. You cannot control the child but you sure can influence his environment. Suggest to his teachers that they set the timer for 10 minutes at a time and gently say to your son, When the timer goes off I’m coming back to see you. As the weeks progress, increase the amount of time on the timer so he is alone for longer periods of time. Perhaps he can also, on alternating days, go into a class of 4-year-olds during naptime. Certainly there will be kids in there that don’t nap. I have visited many classrooms for preschoolers. The ones that tend to have most of the children sleeping during naptime are the ones that darken the room, play soft, children’s CDs, allow the children to nest in a corner or nook of their own choosing, and circulate frequently touching and speaking gently to the children as they reassure them that it’s a good time to rest.

Suzanne Hanky is a parenting coach and educator with eighteen years of clinical experience. She founded Collaborative Parenting of Richmond in 2012 with two locations. She is the mother of five grown children. 
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