I often wonder what our neighbours think we are doing to our children as their screams echo around the walls of our house during the afternoon witching or arsenic hour as it is commonly known. As much as we thoroughly prepare for this time of the day, rarely are my children able to remain cool, calm or collected as we work towards the evening meal, bath and ultimately, bedtime. I have learned to let go of my worries about the neighbours. I know that as long as I am able to remain cool, calm and collected, my children’s emotional releases are healthy, normal and an important part of a toddler’s development.
In the past though, I would be on the phone to my husband every five minutes from about 4pm onwards, getting an update on his eta. I found the meltdowns difficult to handle and impossible to stay unruffled through. Now, I am finding a strength in my resolve to be confident, peaceful and firm during these times that I never thought I had in me. My eldest daughter put me through a pretty gruelling test recently when she melted down just before dinner. This is how I made it through unruffled.
The first and most important thing was that I was prepared. Staying calm is always hardest when you are taken off guard and caught by surprise. I knew this time was approaching, as I do everyday. I had made a batch of bolognaise sauce on the weekend which just needed heating so all I needed to do was to pop some spaghetti in some boiling water to cook. Dinner time is between 5:00 and 5:30 in our house (this is as early as we can make it usually) so as 4:30 approached and I heard intolerance build in my children’s interactions I decided to put the pot on the stove a little earlier than normal.
Sure enough, just as the water started boiling I had both children raiding the pantry for some cereal. Obviously, it was too close to dinner for more snacks so I had to get them through 10 -15 mins before I could have dinner on the table. Sending them away to play was not going to happen, so I set the timer for 10 minutes for the spaghetti to cook and gave the girls some wants nothing quality time. I took them to the lounge for some pre-dinner dancing. We turned on Pandora for some bopping music and danced together for about 5 minutes before the girls raided the puzzle drawer and settled in for some puzzle time on their own. I was able to duck away at this point to serve up the dinner and set it at the table all ready for the girls.
Tiredness overcame my eldest during dinner (as it often does). She asked for/ demanded some milk and I rephrased this for her, “May I have some milk please, Mum?” I gave her a small amount in a cup which she quickly gulped down. She whined “I want some moooore!”. I set an expectation that she eat her dinner before having more milk as I didn’t want her filling up on just milk. She repeatedly screamed for milk. Sitting by her, I acknowledged, “I hear you asking for some more milk. You may have some when you have eaten your dinner.” As her screams continued I validated her emotions “Wow! You are really upset that I am not giving you any milk. It can be hard to wait.” In my head I kept repeating to myself my mantra, “She needs me to be calm.”
She eventually calmed but wouldn’t eat. Instead she pushed the food around her plate and then eventually slid off her chair and underneath the table. I set the limit, “Lucy, you have left your chair. Are you telling me you are done with your dinner?” “NO!” came the reply as she scrambled back up. I reminded her: “I would like you to stay sitting on your chair for dinner. When you leave your chair, you are telling me you have had enough to eat so I will take your plate away.”
Lucy squirmed around on her chair for a while longer before climbing down again to retrieve a book from the bookshelf. I told her I could see she was done with her dinner and that I would remove her plate. She screamed and ran after me, clawing to have her plate back. I explained that she had left the table and her dinner was going away. I let her know it was bath time now and acknowledged, “You seem disappointed that you are not able to eat your dinner. After your bath you might feel a little more hungry and you could try again.” (I don’t always offer the eat later option but tonight I felt her emotions were getting in the way of her eating and that given some time to release these emotions, she may be able to eat more peacefully)
As I ran the waters for her bath I took some deep breaths and reminded myself how hard this was for her. I resolved to support her through it and calculated that I only had just over an hour until she would be soundly tucked up in bed and I would be able to have a much needed shower and cuppa in peace. I think of it like an hour until I clock off from work. This works for me at this time of day but I try not to count down from too early on or it can have the reverse effect!
Through Lucy’s bath, the testing behaviour continued. it was clear to me that a mixture of tiredness, hunger and possibly some pent up emotions were rendering her irrational. She asked for some blue colour in her bath which I happily obliged. However, as the blue drops landed in her bath and swirled out in spectacular patterns, she screamed, “No not blue, RED!!” I had not misheard her, she had changed her mind which is what she often does when her rational brain begins spiralling out of control. It is as though she wants to create an issue worthy of her spilling out her emotions. This was a sure sign for me that she desperately needed help.
I acknowledged “You don’t want blue in the bath. You really want red. I can put some red in with the blue if you’d like?” But she wasn’t listening “GET THAT BLUE OUT!” Came the scream as she madly started scooping water out of the bath tub, all over the floor and me. Now soaking wet, I could feel my patience waning. I needed to get her out but I needed to do so respectfully. I blocked Lucy’s frantic hands from splashing the water and calmly explained that the water needed to stay in the bath and that I would help her by holding her hands. She fought and became very agitated with me, screaming at me to let go.
“I hear you asking me to let go. If you splash the water, you are telling me you are done having a bath and I will have to help you out.” As soon as I let go of her hands she splashed the water at me once more. I explained, “Bath time is over. I will now lift you out of the bath.” She needed me to take control and over her screams of protest I spoke to her (but really I spoke to myself). This was how I was going to stay calm. “You are tired and hungry. You are having a hard time making decisions so I am going to help you by taking charge. It is so hard for you in afternoons sometimes but I want you to know that I am here for you and I want to help you. I will keep you safe.”
Now I don’t know how much she took in but saying these things definitely allowed me to keep a compassionate, confident demeanour which is what she desperately needed. This would have given her a sense of relief in my ability to parent her even when the going got tough.
I wrapped her in a towel and carried her to her bedroom. Here she was in a safe space where we could both sit and she could freely express the emotions that were taking over her little body. It wasn’t long before her wails of anger turned to healing sobs as the cortisol flushing through her body dissipated. Finally these turned to relieved sniffles. She crawled into my lap and physically relaxed as I stroked her back and told her I loved her and would always do so. She became so still that I thought she was falling asleep right then and there but eventually a little voice squeaked, “I’m hungry. Could I please have my dinner now?” I replied, “Sure, let’s get dressed.” She willingly did so and then went to eat her dinner with her Father who had by then arrived home.
When she finished she announced that she would like to go to bed (an hour earlier than her usual 7:00 bed time) so we took her to bed and she drifted off happily as I read to her.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I put the kettle on and slumped into the lounge chair. I listened as my husband read stories to my youngest in her room and quietly praised myself for helping a child work through her despair with the kindness and empathy that I am starting to see reflected in her own behaviours more and more.
Tantrums and Meltdowns – My Tips For Staying Calm When the Kids Aren’t – Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare)
9 Best Ways to Stay (Mostly) Unruffled With Toddlers – Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare)
5 Tips For Staying Calm With Children – Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
What where you doing with the other one whilst this happened? Because the issue I have is the other one loses out, as I can’t have one in the bath on their own? Or if I’m trying to deal with one then then the other will start and I can’t deal with both of them at the same time without upsetting one or the other! Even the HV recently pointed out that due to my having to leave certain situations due to my little ones meltdowns the big one was losing out! It’s all just horrible!!! Like how you handled it tho! X
There are definitely times when both my children melt down simultaneously. Most often just take them both to a bedroom (without dinner or bath) and wait with them to cool down whilst supporting them and letting them know I was listening. My husband can usually get home by 6pm so unless there is another reason to keep the process moving, I usually wait it out until reinforcement arrives.
If I know I am on my own for the night, I focus on getting one child ready for bed at a time whilst acknowledging the other one needs/wants me also. Sometimes, I will carry my younger one on my hip whilst I help her older sister through the process. If I need to put her down to have both hands free to help bath or dress her sister, I acknowledge that she needs me and let her know I will be there to help her when I have finished helping her sister. She will usually cry loudly until I come for her but that is ok as long as I have acknowledged her cries and let her know I will be there soon.
I think the key is realising that their crying is not a bad thing that needs be stopped at all costs. If an adult cried the way the children cried we would stop everything to help them because it is usually the result of an acute upset whereas children don’t just cry when they are acutely upset, there can be so many reasons behind a child’s cry and not all of them need our immediate attention. As long as you have acknowledged their cries and let them know you will be with them when you can, it is ok to leave them to cry whilst you help one or the other.
This was my exact question- I have four littles under four, and I usually end up with at least two others upset when I am trying to work through an issue with one. Which rattles my brain to no end when I have three or four crying at me!! I think the key, like you said, is that crying isn’t inherently bad if you have addressed their emotions. Thanks for the tip! This situation sounds like something that happens daily in my house- at least once per child!
Thank you for sharing this. I have a 4 yr old and a 2 yr old boys. My 4 yr old has meltdowns like this a lot. This morning he through his pancake all over the floor bc he wanted to eat it while watching TV. We have a rule that we only eat at the table. He must have ran back in to turn the tv back on 5 times while crying, yelling, calling me a bad mommy, etc. I do a good job at staying calm in the morning but at night it’s harder. He often splashed bath water at me and that’s when I’m tired, hungry and starting to loose my patience. I appreciate your articles and it helps me remember how much my boys need me to stay calm.
Thanks, Melissa. It sounds like you are doing a lovely job supporting your boys through their emotions. Those afternoons are certainly tough but at least we know the night sleep is nearly here!
All the best
Right on time… i have lost it completely and yelled 🙁
I yelled on Thursday, yelled on Friday, and Saturday morning was chaotic, like i had trouble getting back on the path – That hasn’t happened for a long time and i felt awful. I really don’t know what happened to me, clearly what my dear Sarah (2.8 yo now) did was not important – I got angry, I yelled this is my responsibility. Except from the fact that i now tell myself that i’m doing the best i can untill i know better (and there is a huge improvement in acknowledging, making a connection…) i like the mantra you’re using and i like your phrasing
I will keep this in mind: “She needed me to take control and over her screams of protest I spoke to her (but really I spoke to myself).” i really like the “I will keep you safe” as well.
I have a question, there is something i am very struggeling with because not redirecting and facing conflict can be challenging:
when she takes something she knows she can’t have and run, what do/would you do?
I find myself running after her and take it back from her – sometimes by force.
I really don’t like it, it’s not respectful and maybe quite childish – she might even think it’s a game
when she’s angry with me afterwards, i acknowledge but i really don’t think me chasing her and taking the thing (whatever it is) back is a good solution
do you have suggestions?
thank you very much
Hi Claire, it sounds like you are just going through a tough patch. Don’t be too hard on yourself because children are very forgiving and give us lots of opportunities to make amends and practice being the person we would love to see them grow up to be.
When she takes things and runs she is enjoying the game and also testing how far she can push you until you crack. If the item is not of any danger to her, I would calmly follow her to where she goes and ask her to hand the item to you ‘I can’t let you play with that, I would like you to put it in my hand.’ Wait for 20 seconds with your hand out without further prompting or reminding. It can take that long for them to process. If she tries to run again, hold her and ask her for the item once again. If she still won’t hand it to you after you have respectfully asked her to do so. Take the item out of her hand saying ‘I can’t let you have this, I will now take it and put it away safely. Lets find something else you can play with.’
The less reactive you are the less likely she will continue this behaviour.
Oh it is a tough time of day isn’t it… it’s like all of the hardest parts of parenting are condensed into that hour or two before bedtime when we are exhausted and stretched to our limits! You handled things so calmly and with respect for both your little girl and yourself… that is a huge accomplishment, well done!
Thanks so much, Kate! It certainly is a tough time!!
So it’s not just me! Pinning this to remind myself later!
Haha! No definitely not just you!!
Great article. Thankfully we don’t really have witching hour in our house anymore but i do like the words you used to address the behaviour at the dinner table. I am going to try something like that with my daughters who like to be everywhere but on their chairs when eating dinner.
I look forward to saying goodbye to witching hour, Maree! How old are your children?
I remember those witching hours. I had a three year old and newborn twins and gosh those times were hard! The worst part was when people wanted to visit at that time too and really, you were trying fed, bathe, calm them before their bed time. It was mayhem.
Oh, Penny! I can only imagine!! I bet you developed some pretty awesome coping strategies along the way!!
Pingback: The Power of Music for Children