We were an hour and ten minutes into our road trip- with another hour left to go. I was driving along, rocking out to my choice of favorite car tunes, while my seven-year-old daughter, L, and our golden retriever were spread out in the backseat. We’ve done this journey dozens of times- and as long as L has her water bottle, a half dozen snacks, and her tablet all loaded up with her favorite shows and games- the ride is easy peasy.
But that particular night- things went awry. Instead of downloading only her favorite familiar TV shows, L decided to try a new show. It was a show I knew. Her older sister had watched it when she was L’s age and so I had thought, mistakenly, it would be fine. But it wasn’t.
The first sign that my peaceful car ride was going to be interrupted was when L took off her headphones and yelled above my music that she couldn’t understand what was going on. She didn’t get what the characters were talking about. I calmly suggested she switch to a different show. She then realized she’d already watched all of those options and all she had left unwatched were several episodes of this new, confusing show.
I gave a few half-hearted suggestions that I knew were not going to fly. We could play “I Spy” or “20 Questions” or sing a song. No, those were clearly ridiculous, horrible ideas. And then, after maybe five minutes of my attempts and her whining, something snapped in L. And a full-blown meltdown began.
There were tears, sobs, wails. There was kicking of the front seat and throwing the tablet onto the car floor. Shrieking. Howling. It was pretty epic.
Now, thankfully, L has mostly moved through the period of life when tantrums and meltdowns were common. As a seven-year-old she now has more language available to her, more coping skills, and her brain is experiencing less dramatic developmental shifts than the previous few years. So it had been quite a while since we’d had an episode like this.
Maybe because of this infrequency- I was able to have some distance and perspective- or maybe it was because I was totally stuck with nothing to do but drive on… but for whatever reason- the way I responded to her meltdown that night was different than the way I’d ever responded previously. And as a result, I ended up staying calm and regulated throughout.
Typically, when my kids are screaming and crying, I try to distinguish between a tantrum and a meltdown. To do so, I try to understand if there is a motivation behind their behavior or a biological response. Is my child too dysregulated to process my words or do they have any reasoning ability? Are they crying but the tears will stop as soon as they get the outcome they’re looking for or are the tears beyond their control? These distinctions help me determine whether I will use empathy, make soothing sounds but say little, offer a hug, or give distance.
But that night- I mostly just listened with curiosity. I did try to interject a few comforting words initially but L was just so loud- I don’t think she could even hear me. And so- I gave into the experience of the meltdown and let it wash over me. Instead of resisting the sounds-trying to block them out or cover them up with the radio- I observed the experience as if it was a symphony. I noticed the range of her vocalizations- when she wailed high and dipped low. I observed the change in the rhythm of her breathing when she escalated and when she ramped down. I noted the intermittent ringing in my ears and the space left by the silence when there were a few moments of nothingness in between sobs.
Absent were most of the thoughts that would usually accompany such a strong response. I did briefly remind myself that it had been a long day, L was over-tired, and the meltdown wasn’t really about the show per se. But apart from that- my mind was markedly still. I didn’t have thoughts like, “She shouldn’t be acting like this at seven. When will she grow up?” or “We don’t have time for this.” I didn’t rack my brain trying to come up with strategies to calm her or make the situation better. I just sat, with my eyes on the open road ahead of me, listened, and was still.
After about forty minutes, L somehow maneuvered her tablet back into her lap from where she’d thrown it and started watching it again. A few more moments later she announced happily that she had tried the next episode and it was fine; she understood it after all. The meltdown storm had blown its way through and was over.