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Dad Next Door: May the Force be with you

When it comes to kids, most meltdowns start long before we see them coming.

A little encouragement from across the fence


As I’ve mentioned in other columns, I’m newly blessed this year with the love of an extraordinary woman and her equally remarkable daughter. Having a young child in my life again has been a blast—and a whole lot easier the second time around. Pippa, 5, already has a dad, so I get to be the fun and somewhat subversive semi-adult in her life, which I have to say, has some clear advantages over actual parenting.

One of them is that I get to sit back and observe. That’s given me a whole new perspective on being a parent. It helps that my sweetheart is an amazing, intuitive, kick-ass mother. I learn a lot from just watching her. A good example was the day, a few months ago, when Pippa had an epic meltdown in the car.

This doesn’t happen often. Most of the time she’s cheerful and funny and pretty adaptable throughout all the involuntary comings and goings that make up a kindergartner’s day. But for whatever reason, this particular car ride brought on an industrial-strength meltdown that would have put Richard Sherman to shame. I can’t even recall the putative reason for it. It was probably just the unbearable lightness of being — being 5, that is. In any case, from my humble position as Mummy’s boyfriend, the situation seemed well above my pay grade. I just sat back and watched the master at work.

Jess started out with some gentle but pragmatic questioning about the reason for the meltdown. This was met with loud and mostly unintelligible screaming, so she moved on to a call for more effective communication, such as actual words at fewer decibels. That had limited effect, but was enough to determine that the meltdown was not the result of any actual physical or emotional trauma. So Jess used a Jedi mind trick that seems at once so simple, yet also requires a mastery of the Force to which most of us only aspire. She ignored it.

Jess turned to me and started making small talk. She acted as if the Class 5 hurricane in the back seat was no big deal. And of course, it wasn’t. The storm passed, the clouds parted, and by the time we got home, Pippa was her usual sunny self again.

I once had a neurology professor in medical school who lectured us about seizures. He said: “The first thing that happens when a patient seizes is someone gets a big syringe and pumps them full of Valium, and they stop seizing. Then all the information we could have learned about the nature and anatomy of the problem is gone. People just need to learn how to enjoy a good seizure.”

A meltdown can be viewed the same way. It isn’t just a random, disorganized event. If you take a deep breath and observe closely, you’ll see that it has an anatomy too. And once you understand its nature and learn to trust it, your apprenticeship in Jedi parenting begins.

Most meltdowns start long before we see them coming. Hunger, boredom, fatigue, anxiety — all of these can bring a child to the brink of their melting point, so that the actual triggering event seems trivial and ridiculous. But don’t be fooled. Try to figure out what cocked that trigger in the first place. You may be able to avert the next meltdown before it begins.

When a meltdown does happen, it’s important not to overreact. Of course, you have to make sure your kid doesn’t actually have an ice pick in their skull — since it can sound that way. And you should try to communicate with them if you can. But if that fails, and they aren’t in any danger, just sit back and see what happens. Learn to enjoy a good meltdown.

The initial phase is hideous, and hard to ignore. But eventually, the howling and thrashing reaches its peak, and begins to fall off. They try to sustain their rage, but their efforts seem less and less convincing. Eventually, they poop out and go quiet and sullen. Then gradually, like a werewolf whose strength is sapped by the waning moon, they’ll rejoin the human race, unaware of the beastly state from which they’ve returned.

Every meltdown is an opportunity. For your kid, it’s a chance to learn self-comfort and how to manage difficult emotions. And for you, it’s a reminder that those emotions are nothing to fear. You don’t have to feed off of them or let them trigger your own. And you don’t have to fix them.

Later, when things calm down, you can give your kid some tools. Deep breathing, naming feelings, asking for help, using words — there are many. But remember, you can’t mend a roof in the middle of a typhoon.

Be calm. Be present. And most of all, trust the Force.

Jeff Lee is not the droid you’re looking for in Seattle

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