On-Air Consult Meltdown Mode - Tips to calm a toddler in distress


Dr Kimberley O'Brien

On-Air Consult Meltdown Mode - Tips to calm a toddler in distress

Here is the inaugural Impressive Podcast with Dr Kimberley O'Brien. In this on-air consultation, Kimberley discusses  Rigid thinking, Sensitivity to change, Issues with emotional regulation, Meltdowns and toddler development.  Enjoy:

Here are the recommended resources to support a 3-year-olds exhibiting including social stories and visual timetables to introduce more structure.

Further Reading


Toddler Behaviour: Taming Toddler Tantrums

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Read the full transcript below under references

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Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 00:08

Hello, I'm Dr. Kim O'Brien, a child psychologist, entrepreneur, and mum with a passion for problem solving and family adventures. Join me each week for practical tips and on air consultations with the smartest, kindest parents and their incredible kids. Find answers faster, do things differently, and take your family further. This is impressive.
This episode is sponsored by britechild.com. Now let's get started.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 00:35

Hello and welcome too Impressive. I'm so glad that you could join us today. We're doing our very first episode and this is an on air consultation with a mum based in Sydney, Australia in regard to her three year old daughter named Edie. So this week we'll give you some practical tips on how to manage meltdowns and rigid thinking changes to a routine and how to develop your support network when it feels like everything is against you and you have a seven month old baby to contend with as well. So thank you so much to Kate for volunteering to be part of the on-air consultation. If you'd like to be part of an on-air consultation and draw on my two decades of experience working with children and adolescents in clinics and classrooms, I would absolutely love to hear from you. You can go onto Facebook and join our community.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 01:30
If you look for Impressive the podcast, you'll find us there or otherwise you can go to www.britechild.com. That's britechild.com to find out more about Impressive the podcast and you can drop us an email via support@quirkykid.com.au that's quirkykid.com au if you'd like to be part of a consultation. So without further ado, let's introduce Kate and find out what's been happening since they recently returned from five weeks away in Europe and there's been a lot of changes for the lovely Edie since then. So she's not so happy and Kate is starting to lose her patience and feeling like she needs all the support she can get. So I hope these resources that I recommend are useful. You can find some details in the show notes and we'll go through some books and different point charts and things that can be helpful when kids are learning how to verbalise their emotions rather than using actions. So it's called emotional regulation and we'll talk more about that in this episode. Thanks for listening and let's get started. Hi Kate, and welcome to Impressive. We're gonna talk today about your three year old Edie and I just wanted you to unload what the issue is so that we can brainstorm together and come away with some solutions in the next 20 to 30 minutes.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 02:59

What are the current issues?

Kate: 02.:59

There are quite a few, basically she's been having these uncontrollable tantrums and they seem almost daily. I feel like they seem almost daily or sometimes twice daily. And I feel like we're walking around on eggshells because we never know when she's gonna erupt and the smallest things can set her off just saying no to something that she wants, which I know sounds like an obvious reaction of a toddler, but I think it's the way she handles it, the I guess level of tantrum she gives for quite a small thing. So for instance, she always wants me and she likes things like a certain way and if they're not that way then she kind of loses it. She always wants us to wet her hair.

Kate: 04:00
We just got back from five weeks overseas and it was hot and she sees me wet my hair in the morning and she wants me to wet her hair, but she wants me to wet her hair all the time. She wants it long, it's colder here and I don't wet it and if I say no, she will lose it. She'll repeat herself, wet my hair, I want my hair wet. I want my hair wet. She could literally say that on repeat in the same monotone voice for an hour, and then she'll start screaming and yelling and it gets to this point sometimes where she is screeching in this guttural, animalistic way. I'm surprised that the neighbours haven't called the police, it sounds like something terrible is happening, happening in our apartment. And she started hitting and kicking and spitting and she knows that hitting will get a reaction and she'll come up and hit me and I'll say, Edie, we don't hit, we don't put our hands on other people.

Kate: 05:03
It's okay to be angry, but you can't hit and she'll keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it and I'll pick her up and I'll put her in her bedroom and then she'll come out and I'll pick her up and I put her back in and she comes out and it just goes on and there's like no end to it, and she is really quite horrible to my husband, her father if he tries to help her, she always will call for me, always wants me and if he will go into her room, if I'm with my son and he goes in to help her at any stage during the night or if she's having a tantrum or anything like this, she spits at him like a cat and makes these noises and doesn't want anything to do with him. She's horrible to him and he's so loving to her and she can be loving to him but most of the time, she's horrible.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 06:00

Kate, how long has this been happening? Is this a new thing or It's kind of always been there

Kate: 06:05

I mean she's a toddler, so she's been having tantrums since she was two, getting progressively worse. This hitting and this insane screaming and this repetitiveness problem while we were away, it started happening.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 06:22


Kate: 06:23
I've spoken to her kindergarten teachers about it, her daycare teachers. And they think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there was no routine. I mean she's always been good with routine, no routine at all while we were overseas and that would've taken an adjustment. And then coming back and having routine implemented again is another thing. And then there's my son who she is probably very jealous of because he takes up my time as well. I get why I just need to be able to deal with it.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 06:56

I love it. And so I'm thinking she seems quite rigid in the way that she wants things done a certain way. Is that right?

Kate: 07:04

Yeah. She likes things done a certain way. She wants her hair wet, she always wants to eat her porridge with this one particular spoon. Every morning she'll say the same thing, can I have porridge? I want to put the honey on, can you please put some milk in? I want a lot of milk over the honey. Or if I want the yogurt and I wanna put the milk in every time and I have to put the honey on top of the milk and it's like everything has to be like this and if you do it slightly off, then all hell breaks loose.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 07:35

So we call it a big meltdown. If there's a ritual that she wants you to follow, it needs to be done in this order and then there's a meltdown afterwards where she just can't regulate her emotions and it's like she's just spilling over. How long do those meltdowns go for?

Kate: 07:53

It depends. I know that being calm will help the meltdown ease a lot sooner, but sometimes I'm overwhelmed and I can't stay calm and I lose it and that makes things worse. I know that, but I'm human. Sometimes I just lose it, but there was one moment two weeks ago, it was on her first day back at kindy, so I know that there was a lot of change. She came, this is just one example, she likes playing outside after kindy if I pick her up before she's had outside play, she gets really upset and I had timed it to pick her up after outside play but they were running late and I had to get home because I had to put my son to sleep, thought everything was okay. We get in the car, she loses it, won't get in the car seat, have to hold her down to do up her seatbelt, takes her shoes off while we're driving and throws them at my head.

Kate: 08:49
She was so upset she almost made herself vomit in the car. Then she started attacking me in the lift, kicking me. We get upstairs, she sat at the front door, wouldn't let me look at her, wouldn't let me touch her, wouldn't let me near her. Tried to throw a box of recycling at me, was so uncontrollable that she wet herself, she couldn't calm down enough to go to the toilet. It was almost like she got to this point where she was so out of control that it kind of scared her that she was out of control and she couldn't come back from that.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 09:22

Yeah, I feel for Edie, it sounds like she's just completely overwhelmed and she wants things her way but I wouldn't put this down to a behavioural issue. I'm feeling like it's more around lots of prepping and planning for change. So I'm just gonna recommend a couple of resources just off the top of my head. So I'm thinking there's a book called No More Meltdowns by Jed Baker, that's Jed Baker and that will talk about how to kind of preempt meltdowns and put lots of strategies in place so that the child is really aware that something different might be coming up, because I'm thinking that Edie doesn't cope well with change at this point and she's needs to work on her flexibility, this focus on wanting a certain spoon and wanting a cereal done a certain way as you move forward instead of changing, too much too soon, try and keep it as she would like it, but maybe just a slight adjustment. So slightly less milk or just one particular tiny little adjustment per meal time until she's fine with that. It's like, oh, you're good with the milk now it's not quite as much or it could be a different spoon, something like that, but it will take some time and just focus on one little bit of flexibility at a time.

Kate: 10:42

If that spoon is in the dishwasher, she seems like she's okay to use another one.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 10:46

Okay, there's flexibility, that's good. So just praising her, that's great. You don't need your purple spoon today. So proud of you. You're so flexible. And also just telling her grandparents or a friend she's so flexible now she ate with a different spoon this morning so that she can hear it and it's being reinforced and she knows that mum likes that. Other people will say, wow, that's really good and then around the actual meltdowns, I think you're good to just clear space so she doesn't thrash around hurt herself and that you sometimes get triggered and feel frustrated as you would when it goes on for such a long time and it's quite extreme. So I think just taking care of yourself as well. So thinking, okay, this is going to be a little bit of a long haul or she might do it when we leave daycare again today.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 11:35
So you know, maybe bring your own supplies, like a thermos of tea or  hop out of the car and take a stretch because I think interacting with Edie at that point is not helping. But if you are just remaining calm and she's safe, if she can get it down to less time than that really bad one you just mentioned, she manages to pull it together and it's only been 10 or 15 minutes, then again it's praise. That was great Ed. I love how you're taking those deep breaths and oh wow, that was amazing, you really wrapped it up quickly. So it's about reaching their personal best when it comes to calming down.

Kate: 12:10

She's not actually able to calm down on her own. It's always something I have to divert her attention to something else. And I know this is really bad, I feel like you're going to say it's not a good thing, but I've just been threatening to leave because I just know sometimes it's just so bad and I need to, It's been hard the last week and a half because my husband's been really sick, so I've had to do everything by myself and I can't rely on him, but I will need to breastfeed and put Leb to sleep at a certain time and I try and be flexible with that. But when he's screaming as well, then I need things to, or if I can just say no end to it and she keeps hitting me, keeps hitting me, will not stop hitting me or pulling my clothing.

Kate: 13:02
She pulls my clothing and will not stop. It doesn't matter what I do. If I walk away, she follows me. If I go into another room, she opens the door. If I put her in her room, she opens the door and comes out and will continue hitting, continue pulling my clothing, in those situations I'm like, fine, I'm leaving and I get my keys and so if I make that threat, then she gets really upset and she's like, no mum, I'm being good and I'm like, you're not being good, you're being naughty. And I know they're probably not the best things to do, but I don't know how else to stop it.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 13:34

And that's why we're here to just thrash it around and think, okay, what could be better? Or do you want to experiment with something different and then see whether it changes things. Hi guys, I'm just popping in here briefly to let you know about our social and emotional learning program. It's called The Best of Friends and it's designed for children aged seven to eleven years who want to learn more about making and keeping friends in the school setting. The Best of Friends is available for clinics and classrooms and you can find out more by going to quirkykid.com.au. That's quirkykid.com.au to find out more about the Best of Friends. So I would suggest maybe just crouching down on the floor, not right next to her because you don't want to be hit, but just kind of at her level and looking in a passive way so you're not reaching out or standing over her, just modelling deep breaths, no eye contact. So she's just looking at a person who's calming down and then hopefully she'll be at some point able to focus enough to see that mum's taking deep breaths, mum's quiet, that's what I need to try and do.  

Kate: 14:57

If she's hitting me while I'm doing that, what am I doing?

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 15:01

So if she's hitting you, I would sort of hold her hands and just try and get yourself in a comfortable position sitting on the side of the bed, putting a pillow in front of you so that she can't hurt you. If she's going to hit you on the head or pull your hair, I would stand up and then hold that pillow around your waist so that she can't hurt you. So protecting yourself, but staying close by and try not to make too many noises or demands or anything. Just don't see it as a challenge, she's not sort of challenging you, she's just desperately in need of support at that point. She's just so, it's not so much you need to teach her to be respectful or stop hitting because all that information's not really going in anyway. She's just beyond it. Think of it like a storm where you need to weather the storm, breathe and hopefully have support there so that you can tag team with your partner. So if things are still escalating after 15 minutes, then he'll step in and do the same sorts of thing and if you can step out, he  comes in, is there any space in your house? Or even if you went into the hallway so that he could try and calm things down and then after 15 minutes you come in so that everyone's tag teaming.

Kate: 16:21

We live in a tiny two bedroom apartment in Randwick. There's no space anywhere. That's why she's able to access me anywhere I go in the apartment.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 16:32

So then thinking, say if you were going for a walk, instead of saying, right it, I'm leaving, if you said, okay, let's go for a walk, you grab the pram or you know, start to pick up something that suggests you going to the park, would she follow you and do you think it would be easier outside the apartment.

Kate: 16:51

She'd be okay to do that? except it's not always the right time to go for a walk, if this happens in the middle of the night or if this happens in bedtime or something like that or if I need to breastfeed, there are these instances where that does work and we can do that and we did do that when we were overseas actually. But there were also instances where it's not the appropriate time to just leave and go for a walk.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 17:19

So I think there needs to be a day plan and a night plan that you and your partner are really clear on so that when it happens, rather than walking on eggshells and trying not to upset Edie, doing the things that you need to do with a slight bit of requesting some flexibility from Edie. But then if the meltdown happens, kind of having a plan that I'm gonna do this, he's gonna do that. For example, he takes the baby, you crouch down with Edie, you just model deep breathing, see if she can calm herself a little bit and then hopefully before she escalates too much you might be able to pat her or she might come and cuddle you. That would be a good result. If it continues to escalate and it's just going up, then I really think it's really just about enduring it. Tag teaming until you get to the end of it. And then thinking, what was it that triggered at that time it was the whatever, make a note and then thinking, okay, tomorrow let's try and work around that trigger point. Whether it's, what would be an example of what would trigger it before bed.

Kate: 18:32

So she'll, I guess as an excuse to not go to sleep, she'll all of a sudden say I'm hungry. And she knows that I will get annoyed if she's like, I'm hungry because she does this thing where it's dinner time, she'll eat half her dinner and she'll be like, I don't want anymore, I want to go play. I'm like, no, you need to eat some more food. I'm like, ok fine, if you're not hungry that's fine but we don't eat food straight before bed and well, she'll even eat enough food, she'll eat a whole plate of food and there's no way after the amount of food she's eaten that she's hungry. But she'll be like, I'm hungry if I don't give her food before bed, she'll lose it, or one more story or one more milk. And the thing is, with her, if you give into it, then she expects it the night after

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 19:21

Great. So you're good at setting your boundaries, even though she puts pressure on you, you don't give in to the no eating before bed rule and then no extra book. So I think that's good that you setting your own boundaries. It could be that she doesn't want to go to bed or she doesn't want to say she doesn't want to separate from you. Is there anything to do with separation anxiety or it's like, I don't think she's hungry. You don't think she's hungry? because she's had a big dinner

Kate: 19:49

There's no way she's hungry. I don't know, I think she just, she's definitely tired because once she gets into bed she's asleep within two seconds.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 20:01

Great, good. So maybe it's just about she's asking for food but you're staying, do you sit next to her on a chair or something like that? Or do you lie next to her and then she drops off, then you hop up?

Kate: 20:14

No, we have a whole routine. A kiss, I give her 10 strokes and then I walk out. She listens to podcast story books as she goes to sleep.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 20:24

Perfect. I reckon that sounds ideal. You know how it's very structured, It's a ritual that you stick to. You like it, she likes it. Yeah, I think almost all of these little tantrums are about needing a ritual that you like and she likes and then you can agree on that and try and do that every time Because she seems like unless it's predictable and structured, then she feels out of control and then everything just gets very emotional and noisy and stressful.

Kate: 20:54

So can I just go back to one thing, when she's being aggressive and in that state where she's screaming yesterday she got right next to my baby's head and was screaming at both of us very, very loudly I felt very worried for my baby. I knew nothing was going to happen to him, but that's not a nice thing for even a second  in that situation and I was so angry, I just need to throw all the anger away and model a calm person in front of her and hope that that will help her calm down.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 21:31

Well I think in that case, because the baby's right there, then yeah, I agree you need to try and if there's a support person around, pass the baby over and then go into calming Edie mode. But if there's no one else there, then I think hopping up, moving away, even putting the baby down in his cart, closing the door, he might be a bit like what's going on? but what you're doing is you're just keeping him safe and then you're focusing on Edie to say what's happened? This could take a while, ideally it'd be great if she could learned to use her words so that she can say whatever's going on for her. This feels a little bit more extreme than the norm, so when you look at standard three year old behaviour, yes there are tantrums, but usually it's not so illogical and both illogical and long and intense.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 22:21
So you might need to start developing what they call social stories. So when mum picks you up from school, if you haven't had a play outside, we'll stop in the park before we get home. Some sort of a little closure to whatever that issue was with a picture of you two at the park or something like that. So she's like, okay, I get it. Yeah, I think you've got the bedtime story kind of thing worked out. You probably could put that in pictures. So at bedtime we do this many books, cuddle, kiss, podcasts. So you are just introducing more structure so that she feels safe. She's like, ah yes, that's what I do. That's what I love. Same for the next little transition, because it sounds like she's triggered by transitions and then things that don't go to along the lines of her ritual. So rather than looking at it as a behavioural issue, if you look at it like an anxiety issue, then it's about showing her how to calm down, showing her the way through this anxious situation. So she's feeling like, ah, this is not working out, this is all going wrong. What are we gonna do? So it's like calm, this is what's going to happen. You're safe. Rather than tantrum behaviour, boundary pushing, you know, needing to escalate.

Kate: 23:39

She will push on everything. Yeah, she's very, if I say no, she says yes. If I say yes, she says no. It's little things

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 23:55

If you did sometimes you walk into the prep classroom or kindy classroom and you can see they've got pictures of we're going to read in the morning, then we're going to go outside to the garden and then we're going to do singing. When you can go, oh, that looks like what you're doing today. If you were to put a visual schedule down for Edie using photos, do you think she would be more likely to stick to it? so it's just about prep rather than saying, Edie, we're going todo this and she says no, you can point to the plan and say no, remember there's whatever the sequence was, just point it out using your finger and pointing out the pictures rather than your voice and challenging her to do what you've asked her to do.

Kate: 24:36

But then that means there's no room for any kind of flexibility in the day.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 24:41

Then I think go with the little Velcro tabs on the back and in the morning say, okay, it's raining today so we won't be doing swimming, so we're going to move swimming down to next week. So it's a big timetable kind of thing. Then we're going to move up grandma's face and we're going to go and see grandma instead. Okay, but give her the prep, you've shown her that there's some change and you can even have a little book, like an exceptions book.

Kate: 25:07

Pictures are probably better for someone who is three years old.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 25:09

Three years old. Yeah, I totally agree. I think those setting up or increasing your support network would be really good. Once your partner's up and healthy again making sure you have a little bit of downtime to adjust to being back at home and just getting things back into some sort of order, how when you're tired then you become more frustrated and then Edie's probably more likely to be more emotional. So it all just kind of travels around. So if your husband's well rested, you get to have a rest than thinking about increasing your support network as well. Maybe would you have a babysitter or a grandparent that could come in and keep Edie busy while you spend some quality time with your little guy? Or how is it possible to increase your support network?

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 26:05

Have a think a think because then I feel like this is just going to be like you've a bit of a marathon at the moment and exhausting, but then once you are well rested, your partner's back into good health, then focus on let's just look at the times when she's not escalating and then praise those things. Let's look at what she's flexible with and praise those things that will start to push things in the right direction. When you said, I wish I didn't do it, but I've threatened to leave and I've picked up the keys and things like that, that's just another kind of trigger for anxiety. So it's kind of just all now lots of reassurance. Mum's not going anywhere. If it's daytime, we'll go for a walk. This is our meltdown plan. If it's nighttime, I'll take you in this room, dad will take the little guy and we're going to just stay and we're going to breathe. And I'm not going to look at you, but when you're ready, you just let me know that you're okay.

Kate: 27:00

Just quickly, one other thing. You know how you said when she's being aggressive, that's not the time to talk to her about it? When do I talk to her about that we don't, don't push, we don't spit, we don't kick that kind of thing. I've tried after and if I yell, I always apologise. And afterwards and we talk about what happened and most of the time I ask how she was feeling and it's always the same thing, angry, sad. I don't know if she's just like knows that that's what she needs to say, or if she was actually feeling angry or sad.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 27:38

Books are a great way to communicate messages. So if she's good in the morning, or even if it's one of your bedtime books there's series, I feel angry, I feel frustrated. Brian Moses, I like his series the best because they come with strategies as well, like what to do when you're frustrated and there's just, it's very child friendly. It would work for a three year old right up until probably ten years old. So that's a good series to look at and you really just want her to use her words. So when she's in a good space and she's happy, you could say, how are you feeling? We have a point chart at Quirky Kid that we use. It's called Face It. So it's like a poster with 35 different facial expressions. So you could point to it yourself, Kate, and say, yesterday when we got home I felt like this, so you point to the face that's looking exhausted, frustrated, stressed maybe and then you could say, how did you feel, Edie? and then maybe she's going to point to the upset face. So that's good for boosting her vocabulary. So hopefully at some point she'll be able to use those words rather than all that action, which is telling you that how she's feeling, how do you interpret it? do you think she's feeling scared or angry at you? What do you think the feeling is?

Kate: 28:58

Angry and frustrated that we aren't doing what she wants us to do and frustrated that she can't have what she wants when she wants it.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 29:09

Final point, which I think is also important is increasing her independence because kids love it when they can do things for themselves. So if she can pour the milk onto her cereal or at least get the bowl out and get the spoon ready, that would make her feel empowered. And then think of any other ways that you can let her do a little bit more so that you can sort of say, oh, I remember when you were little and you couldn't do the milk on your cereal and now you're such a big girl, you can do your own milk and you can use your words, so you're just kind of putting in there what you want to see and phrasing it when you do see it.

Kate: 29:48

Sure. Okay. Thank you so much Kimberley

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 29:51

Oh my pleasure. Thank you for asking and for being on the Impressive podcast.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien: 30:00
And that was the lovely Kate talking about Edie. And as I said at the beginning of the episode, I'll include those links in the show notes. In regard to your emotions, I feel angry, I feel frustrated by Brian Moses and I've included a couple of extra resources there, like the Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron and that's just very helpful for parents who have children that are overwhelmed by additional sensory stimulation, like background noise or even certain textures. Lights in supermarkets can trigger a sensory overload and that often just looks like a meltdown. So if you'd like to find out more, please go to britechild.com, that's quirkykid.com.au/impressive to find the show notes. And if you would be interested in being on the podcast, I would love to hear from you. Please send your interest to support@quirkykid.com.au that's quirkykid.com.au. And that is the clinic in Sydney and in Wollongong where we see clients and we would love to hear from you. So without further ado we're going to wrap up today and I hope you enjoyed this episode. We'll see you next week. I'm Kimberly O'Brien and this was Impressive.

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