Survive the Meltdowns of Kids Ages 2-5

By Georgia Orcutt

Michelle Nicholasen quickly learned more than many parents ever do about the exasperating behavior of 2-to-5-year olds. Her five kids arrived in rapid succession, with triplets in the middle. At one point, she had five under age 5!

MeltdownTo keep herself sane through the complicated daily-life dynamics that often included at least one or more children melting down at the same time, she started making lists of the situations that came up. An award-winning filmmaker B.C. (before children), the journalist in her wanted to find solutions for dealing with each drama. (Once, for example, as her youngest and oldest child needed her attention in the kitchen, a new nanny yelled down the stairs that all three triplets were pooping in the bathtub.)

Nicholasen found her mentor in 72-yearold Barbara O’Neal, a mother and grandmother who is the educational director of the Arlington (Massachusetts) Children’s Center. Their collaboration led to their book I Brake for Meltdowns, (Da Capo Press, 2008). The book includes an annotated list of all the frustrating things little kids do, from losing it in the supermarket to refusing to get dressed, with hundreds of stops in between, plus step-by-step advice for keeping your cool and handling each situation.

1. How did you and Barbara come to write this book together?

Barbara has been teaching for 32 years at my kids’ preschool. I was impressed by how she spoke to children and always knew what to say. And I was amazed at all the things she never made a big deal about – how evenkeeled she was. Like poetry in motion. I wanted to be around her more. And I started to wonder: When she retires, where will her wisdom be? She considers it part of her job to talk with parents outside of school. So we met for lunch every Friday, when the school is closed. I would role play, acting out things my kids had said and done, and Barbara would provide the solutions. She had an answer for just about everything, but she had trouble scaling up for the number of little kids in my family.When you’re dealing with five kids at once, time-outs won’t work!

2. Why does the book concentrate only on kids ages 2-5?

Barbara loves 2-to-5-year-olds and helped me realize so many things about this group. On one hand, the verbal skills are emerging or are there, but emotionally, kids at these ages are still very young. Parents mistakenly think that, because kids use words, they can reason them out of difficult situations and start negotiating with them. But it’s very important to set firm boundaries. A big trap for new parents is thinking that they can’t upset their child. If you worry about this, you’ll have a lot of problems setting limits.

3. What are the hardest kind of meltdowns for you personally?

The most difficult situations for me are when one of my kids physically hurts another of my kids. My instinct is to comfort the child who is hurt and punish the perpetrator, but it’s important not to pick sides since I wasn’t there and don’t actually know what provoked the incident.

4.Your book describes the "talking cup." Can you explain this concept?

When everyone seems to be talking at once, use any object – a cup or, as I once did, an air gauge that I found in the glove box. The rule: the only person who can talk is the one holding the object. Since it’s very important to let everyone have a turn to speak and be understood, this works for a family like mine where there are more than two kids jockeying for position. It’s especially useful during car travel, when squabbles escalate.One of my daughters is quiet but really wants to be heard and not squeezed out of the conversation. I’ll do some shushing, but kids generally respect this idea and give everyone a chance to talk.

5. How much is a meltdown caused by the child and how much by the parent?

Meltdowns have to do with the personality of your child and your ability to anticipate what can happen.They are about self control for both the adult and the child. The parent’s role is to be able to anticipate a meltdown and not to make it worse. Wherever you go with young children, think of what can happen in your mind and figure out in advance what you’ll do. Have a plan.What is your exit strategy from a restaurant, a supermarket, a playdate? Also, give your child the lowdown in advance and explain what’s going to happen when you arrive.