Avoiding Meltdown through Teachable Moments

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

A couple of children are playing together in the living room when their mother decides to do a couple of quick chores in the kitchen. A few minutes into doing the dishes, one child is angry and screaming that his brother took his toy. The other child comes into the kitchen shortly afterward crying because his brother just hit him. The mother kneels down by the crying boy and says, “Remember how we have to ask if you want to take your brother’s toy?”

As seen in this scenario, parents often try to have a teachable moment when a child is having a meltdown.  The logic is that the child will be more aware of his bad behavior when the consequences for the behavior have just occurred. In this case, the child was hit when he took the toy away from his brother. This type of natural consequence seem like a perfect time for a teachable moment as the child will be more open to hearing how to avoid something like this from happening in the future.

Unfortunately this type of logic is flawed. Children who are in the middle of a meltdown are unlikely to even hear what their parents are saying much less learning a lesson. When meltdowns occur, children get lost in their emotions which block their ability to take in information. Until children calm down, words will not get through to them.

A better time for teachable moments that reinforce household rules and behaviors is when things are going well. Parents should focus on catching their children being good. This means paying particular attention to children when they are acting in a positive manner and highlighting it to them.

For example when a child shares something with his brother at breakfast, the parent should draw attention to it with specific praise such as, “Thank you for sharing the syrup with your brother!”

This reinforces sharing behavior during a time when everyone is open to hearing about good ways to behave. If the mother had praised the brother’s sharing during breakfast and other times during the day, then it would be less likely that the later meltdown would have occurred.

In addition to learning about sharing, parents can use teachable moments to focus on behaviors such as following rules, using social skills, identifying emotions, and responding to challenging behaviors. Parents can use teachable moments to reinforce these behaviors throughout the day. Some common times for teachable moments include when children are playing, taking baths, riding in the car, watching television, and eating meals.

There are many calm and happy moments throughout the day. Take this time to intentionally teach expectations, rules and skills that will allow a child to be successful and reduce how often meltdowns occur.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on April 20, 2014.

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