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Warding Off Meltdowns

By Nancy Olsen-Harbich, MA

Meltdowns happen. Just visit any grocery store, restaurant, park or any public place around 4pm and you are likely to encounter at least one young child who has gone “over the brink” into a meltdown with a parent (or two) following not far behind. Children often “lose it” when they are tired, hungry, or otherwise feeling at the end of their rope. The trigger for the meltdown can be as simple as a request to “put on your shoes” or a “funny look” from a sibling. Once the bucket of emotions tips over, parents often feel frustrated and helpless about what to do with this melting child, and also puzzled as to how to avoid going to this unpleasant (for everyone) place again in the future.

If your normally cheerful and positive youngster seems to be disintegrating into tears more often than usual, take some time to reflect on what may be going on for her. Is she getting less attention than usual because “her grown-ups” are preoccupied with work or family stress? Could she be coming down with a cold or ear infection? Is she struggling to adjust to a new schedule that demands more of her (new school, visitors in the household, missed rest times or later bedtimes due to other family members’ scheduled activities)? Try to make adjustments to get her back on an even keel. If the meltdowns are sporadic, but horrible to deal with nonetheless, keep the following in mind:

An Ounce of Prevention…….. 

Children need more sleep than most of them get. If you have not established a reasonable bedtime and a bedtime routine that relaxes your child and soothes frayed nerves at the end of the day, your child will have meltdowns about going to bed and staying in bed. Decide on a bedtime (somewhere between 7:30-8:30 pm is reasonable for young children) and begin a half-hour in advance with activities that quiet and ready the child for sleep, such as stories and calming music.

Children need to eat at regular intervals throughout the day. Their small stomachs don’t hold as much “fuel” as ours do, so they need healthy snacks in between meals to keep from running out of gas. Eating at home first is so important before beginning an outing. Stash a few packets of crackers in your purse, car, stroller, and coat pockets for times that you get unavoidably stuck on line or in traffic. Ask for some bread or an appetizer to share if you anticipate a wait for your meal at a restaurant.

Children need “downtimeto recharge their batteries. If you have ever attended a family holiday gathering where children seem to be melting in every corner of the house, you have witnessed how too little space, too much noise, and too much stimulation can throw young children into overload. Go outside to take a walk, and remember that a two-hour activity or visit that is going well is always more fondly remembered than a longer one that ends in a meltdown.

Nancy Olsen-Harbich is Program Director and a Human Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 332 or at


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