The Dreaded Public Meltdown: What do I do now?

The Dreaded Public Meltdown: What do I do now?

Summer is supposed to fun.  Time to be outside, visit family, attend festivals and fairs or go the beach but it also makes us even more vulnerable to those dreaded public melt down moments.  

How does an emotion coach respond when it feels like EVERYONE is watching?  

Luckily the answer is: It’s all the same.  You don’t have to come up with a new or different strategy.  The 5’C’s and the Re-do remain unchanged.  Let’s show you how.  

Perhaps on this day you’ve gone to the fair.  It’s been a delightful morning, visiting the animal barns, plunging through the sky on the carnival rides and trying your skills at the game booths. But then the kids start getting crabby and picking on one another. That’s when you notice its long past lunch time so you haul the kids off to the food court where you order burgers for everyone.   

Despite the late hour things seem to be going well, when to your horror; the vendor cuts your child’s hamburger in half before handing it to him.  A lightning bolt of dread strikes your gut.   

Your brain clicks into motion; late lunch, over stimulating environment and now the dreaded “surprise.” This is clearly the perfect storm for a meltdown.

You know what’s coming before the first foot stomp or scream of protest.  Heat streaks through your body.  You are not about to buy another burger simply because this one has unexpectedly been cut in half.  But what do you do now?  Everyone is watching!  

Stay calm.  You can do it.  You can be an emotion coach.

Begin with your own perspective.  

Forget the strangers.  What’s most important is your relationship with your child.  You are not powerless in this situation.  Your response truly will change your child’s.  He’s not doing this to embarrass you or make you look inept.  He’s flooded and needs your help.  Once you’re centered you are ready to move into the steps of emotion coaching.  

1. Cues:  Pick up the cues.  

Okay so we’ve missed the cues on this one.  You were having so much fun that you innocently forgot to monitor the level of stimulation in the crowds, the noise, smells, bright lights and pressing of strangers bodies that started fueling this whole event.  Flying from one activity to the next you even missed a break for snack.  Or, maybe you’d made a conscious decision to push it a little this time.  I mean really, after waiting in line for 20 minutes to reach the boarding gate for the roller coaster would you ever consider saying, “Hey guys it’s our lunch time.  Let’s forget this and grab something to eat instead?”   No one would be willing to bet that such an attempt would go well.  But checking the cues – even at this point,  when everyone is already in the “red zone “ still  helps you to recognize this isn’t just about the sliced burger – there’s more that’s fueling the melt down.  

2. Connect and Calm:  

Since the “fuel” has already been ignited and it appears as though your child has just ingested a double shot of espresso you can expect it’s going to take longer to bring him back.  Those 
piercing looks from strangers aren’t helping either, so find a quiet, private place to work this through. The younger your child the more important it is to try and make your “quiet spot” consistent. Pick a place that is always possible to reach, like your car or a restroom and know if there’s a meltdown when you are out in public, that’s where you’ll go.  You’ll teach your child that this is the plan.  It makes it so much easier when you know where you can go.   

Of course the simple act of trying to move your child to this space may often result in shrieks of protest.  If that’s the case and your child is small enough that you can carry her, then pick her up and go.  If you didn’t drive or it’s too far away go to a rest room find any spot that allows you to move away so you can focus on your child instead of grimacing under the pressure of the non-verbal jabs.   

For an older child that you can’t carry, you might give a choice by saying, “We need to work on this.  Where do you want to go?”  As you are talking, begin moving toward a quieter place.  

Okay, so you’ve convinced your child to move away from the counter to a better place, now what?  It depends on your child.  You have to know who you are working with.   If he’s little you might offer to hug him or let him sit on your lap for a while until he’s not so sad.  If he’s the type of child that only gets angrier if you try to touch him stay near but don’t attempt to make physical contact – even if that’s what would make you feel better!  

If he hits you or throws something, recognize that these actions may be telling you he needs space.  

You’re too close.  Try moving slightly away or even asking him, “Do you want me to sit here or there?”  If he continues to come after you, you’ll have to restrain him.  But think about what you do at home.  What calming strategies move him from the “red zone” of overload to the “green zone” of calm energy?  Use them. This is not “spoiling” or “giving-in.”  You’re helping him compose himself so he can work with you.   The more you become aware of your own actions and whether or not they escalate or de-escalate the situation the quicker your child will come back to the “green zone” and be ready to work with you.

3.  Cause:  Seek understanding.  What is he feeling or needing? 

Be empathic.  Listen to understand.  Be aware that in this situation the “sliced hamburger” is probably not the complete “fuel source” but you can start there.    “I know you really wanted your hamburger whole.  Or, “You’re so mad.  That was so disappointing.  I wish that wouldn’t have happened.” 

Remember you are not trying to convince him that this is not a big deal or that he needs to “get over it.”  

You’re just trying to understand what he’s feeling.

If he doesn’t respond or agree with your assumptions then ask questions.  “Did you have a different plan?”  “Did that surprise you?”  If it doesn’t seem to be about the hamburger think about what happened before.  “It was really noisy in here.”  “There were lots of people crowding us.”  Continue until you see and feel him relax.  That’s when you know you understand what he’s truly feeling or needing.

4.  Clarify the issue:    

Once you feel that you understand you can re-state the issue and what’s important to him.   “I know you really wanted your hamburger whole.”   But don’t stop there.  

Your interest is also important.

You can choose whether to state it or simply know in your mind – throwing away a hamburger simply because it has been cut in half is wasteful and something you would not choose to do.  It’s critical that you take a moment and really think about what’s important to you in this situation because otherwise the ultimate solution may not feel good to you. When you understand what is truly vital to you then you can listen to your child and work with him but also insist that what is important to you be respected and considered as well.  

Your conversation might sound like this.  “I know you really wanted your hamburger whole.  We weren’t able to stop the vendor before he cut it.  You need to eat something.  I need to not spend more money.  What could we do?”   

5.  Collaborate:  Come up with a win/win solution 

This is where you are now teaching your child that you work together.  You’re listening to him. You are also asking him to listen to you.  Invite him to come up with 3 possible solutions to the problem.  If he emphatically declares, “You could buy me a new one.” Don’t get caught, simply respond, “That’s one idea can you think of two more?”  You can also remind him that you need to find a solution that makes him happy and does not cost you more money.  If he has no suggestions, decide whether you need to take a little longer break to calm down more.  Or, you might offer a few ideas yourself.  “Could I cut it in fourths so they all look the same?”  Or, “Do you want the snack we brought along?”  Or, “What if you ate one half at a time and pretended each was a whole?”  

The solution you come up with and how you do so is going to be influenced by the age of your child.  The older your child, the more you’ll coach him to come up with potential solutions himself.  If your child is a toddler you’ll want to offer a limited choice such as, “Do you want the hamburger or the snack we brought with us?”  Continue until you have a solution that works for both of you.  

Do NOT stop here.

Re-do – Go Back for the Teachable Moment 

Yes, the event has been resolved.  And we know you don’t want to rev things up again, but the true teachable moment comes in the re-do.  This may occur minutes after you’ve come up with a solution, or perhaps it’s not until the next day, but it is essential that you go back when everyone is calm and teach your child what to do next time he is surprised or disappointed.

Help him understand what he was feeling.  

“That was a surprise.  You had a different plan.” 

Clarify the expectation 

“Even when we’re surprised we don’t throw a fit or shout in public.” 

Teach him what words or actions you want him to use next time. 

“Next time you can say, “Mom, that’s not what I expected!”  Or, “Mom, could we please talk about this.  I like my hamburger whole.” 


Now actually practice with him.  If you’re there go back to the vendor and role play the situation. If you’re at home, act it out.  If your child is 3-6 it’s critical that you actually role play this.  If your child is older than six you may be able to simply state, “Next time that’s what I expect you will do.”  

So take these day to day situations and tell yourself, “I don’t have to get frustrated.  They really are an opportunity to teach my child essential life skills.”  

If you get stuck – send us your scenario and we’ll address it in a future blog. 

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