If you’re a parent of a young child and you haven’t experienced an epic tantrum at the dinner table consider yourself lucky! Mealtimes can be an emotional minefield. When kids are HANGRY and tired it is more difficult for them to control their misbehavior. As adults with years of practice, it can be easy to forget that eating is an incredibly sensory experience. It can be full of pleasure, but also overwhelming. For kids who are sensitive to smells, texture, taste or sound this can make meal times extra challenging.
When a kid gets overstressed they are far more likely to act out. The tricky thing is learning how to recognize the difference between casual boundary pushing and a full blown meltdown. That line can be blurry. With boundary pushing it’s important to stay firm and consistent. Having some solid “house rules” can help maintain consistency and avoid massive eruptions. However, when kids are in meltdown mode they may need some extra support and help calming down.
When Joel is “in the red” he becomes extremely irritable and particular, nothing is right. Sometimes he will get caught in a loop where he repeats a certain phrase over and over again. When Joel is out of control, all the usual logic doesn’t work. No matter how clearly we explain the circumstances or try to “work together to solve the problem” nothing gets through. His brain is incapable of hearing reason.
According to neurosciencist Dr. Stuart Shanker, “When a child is in distress, we feel an almost reflexive need to try to reason it away. The problem is that the systems in the brain that he would need to process well-intentioned reason go off-line when he’s hyperaroused.”
So what do we do to help kids who are out of control calm down? Whatever you do, DON’T give in to their crazy demands. Instead, set the food aside and step away from the table. Consider why they are behaving this way. Are they just hungry? Maybe they skipped a meal or snack that day? Are they suffering from sleep debt? Overstimulated or worn out from over-scheduling? Dealing with any major life changes such as starting school or a new baby? Understanding the source of the stress makes it easier for parents and caregivers to handle.
Once you’ve stepped away from the table you can focus on getting everyone calm. This can involve a lot of trial and error. Every child is different. Calming strategies will depend on age and will probably change over time. With Joel I usually just hold him for a few minutes and let him cry. Eventually when he is less hysterical I ask if he wants to read a book or two to calm down. We read for a bit and after a while he’ll usually initiate going back to the table for food. Sometimes we’ll discuss the catalyst of the problem and come up with a compromise or figure out how to avoid the issue next time.
After we’ve eaten we discuss the trigger (it’s usually hunger, exhaustion or potty stuff for Joel) to make him aware of how to be in touch with his body and his needs. The goal is that over time he will be able to recognize the warning signs on his own and practice SELF-REGULATION. With hunger you can say “have you ever noticed how you feel better after you eat?” or “sometimes when I feel yucky I feel better after I eat, does that ever happen to you?” Don’t expect changes overnight, but reinforcing these messages will help your child be aware of how to manage stress and regulate their moods.
A few short months of practicing these methods with Joel has already made a huge difference to his emotional maturity. Understand your child’s stressors and help them identify and deal with them. Self-Regulation is something many adults struggle with; we’re just better at masking our discomfort. The important thing is not to get angry with kids when they are out of control and instead act as a spirit guide to lead them to safety.
There’s something incredibly reassuring about a scientific explanation for absurd behaviors. If you want to learn more about the neuroscience behind this post check out this book:
Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, by Dr. Stuart Shanker