Each week, we'll be featuring a Q&A series with Jennifer Watanabe; the Parent Coach at Youth Eastside Services. Got your own parenting questions that you'd love to have answered? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to receive Watanabe's parenting tips and guidance!
Q: My 5-year-old child gets easily frustrated and has frequent meltdowns (as in, multiple times daily — all of my hair is falling out). How do I know what's normal behavior — or when to seek professional help?
Hairless in Seattle
A: Dear HiS,
It sounds like there is a lot of frustration in your family.
Here are 5 questions to consider:
1. What do you expect? Is your child getting upset about things you would expect a 5-year-old to get upset about, e.g. ending a playdate or an outing, ending video game playing time, not yet being able to master a task requiring physical dexterity or mental calculation (Legos come to mind), or a sibling scuffle?
2. Temperament: Has the intensity of your child’s “upsetness” changed over time? Is his or her present level of “upsetness” normal for your child?
3. Frustration threshold: Has your child always been easily frustrated? Or has it become worse recently?
4. How is your child feeling “just before” a meltdown? Is he/she hungry/tired/sleepy/cold/hot/lonely/scared/worried/mad/embarrassed? Has there been a change to the family routine recently?
5. Duration of the meltdown: Are the meltdowns short or long in duration? If the meltdown goes on too long, maybe more than 30 minutes at a time, then this would be something to ask the doctor about.
After assessing your child’s frustration patterns, I would encourage you to do all you can to help your child get through the difficult times when they happen. A child with normal/typical frustrations will respond well (with practice) to creating a plan together for those inevitably trying times.
Here are some tactics to try:
- Talk with your child about his/her expectations and your limitations around an outing or his/her game playing time while the emotional tone is calm (at meal time or while riding in the car). This will go a long ways towards preparing your child to face challenges.
- Use the “just before” a meltdown time to your advantage. This is when you have the most power as a parent to influence what happens next. At a calm moment, ask your child what would help him/her to get through the difficult moments. This does not mean giving in to a child’s demands or making things all better or taking away the cause of the frustration. Sometimes life is frustrating, and each person needs to learn how to get through difficult moments. This is a life skill.
- Validate your child’s feelings. Talking with your child about his/her feelings will help your child to not feel as if he/she needs to put extra energy into convincing you that there is a problem. Many times temper tantrums, for example, are made worse because a child is trying to convince you that there is a problem. The earlier into the meltdown process you can validate your child’s feelings the less likely the child will feel the need to ramp up his convincing efforts that "Houston, there is a problem here."
- Determine what it takes to get your child to calm down. Is your child comforted by your presence? Or does your child do better having alone time. The original purpose of a time-out was for a child to have a designated time to calm down. Can your child borrow your “calmness” until your child is able to calm down on his/her own?
- Take the parenting stance of being your child’s ally. Children do best when they know they have an ally. An ally can be friendly yet still set and impose limits. In Positive Discipline this is known as using kindness and firmness at the same time. This might sound like this: “I know you are mad that we have to leave the park now. It has been so much fun playing outside today. We will both look forward to the next time. You can sit beside me and be sad for a few minutes. Then, we will have to get our stuff together so we can go home for dinner.”
You may want to seek professional help if:
• Your child's behavior has changed over time.
• Your child's behavior seems markedly different from that of other 5-year-old children.
• Meltdowns last more than 30 minutes.
• Your family plan to prevent or manage meltdowns does not seem to work for you or your child.
Jennifer Watanabe is the parent coach at Youth Eastside Services (YES). She teaches Positive Discipline classes and provides individual parent coaching. As a Certified Parent Coach, she has vast experience teaching parenting classes, using research-based information on child development, temperament, discipline, and emotion management. She specializes in helping parents who are longing for a better relationship with their children and who need a more effective way to discipline. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer understands first-hand the issues parents face in our community.