The secret hideout or Why you should stay close when your child has a meltdown

I don’t know what it is these days, but come 4:30/5:00 meltdowns seem just another part of our busy day. This particular day wasn’t any different.

Except it was.

Perhaps it was the much needed Thanksgiving break. Whatever it was, I was seeing/hearing/feeling much more clearly.

So here we are, 4:30 on the nose, plopping our tired selves down on our welcoming couches. Mondays hurt. And Mondays after the Thanksgiving holiday hurt even more.

I offer snacks and a favorite episode to decompress before we get the dinner/homework/bath/bedtime shuffle into high gear.

Little Sister has other plans…“I want my secret hideout, Mommy. I need to sleep in there.”

And I know already that I must very carefully, delicately, and skillfully deliver my next line. Or else.

The problem? Her “secret hideout” is the Christmas tree box that just the day before we had packed back into that deep under the stairs closet while cleaning up after a very messy Christmas decorating day. No way was I going to fish that thing out. Are you kidding me?!?

“Oh, honey, remember we packed it away? You gave it a hug good-bye until it’s time to clean up after Christmas. Want me to help you make a new secret hideout?”

Brilliantly crafted on the fly, don’t you think? And I did deliver it as gently and lovingly as I could.


Cue tears/begging/pleading/throwing self on couch.

I quickly realize there’s not going to be an easy way out of this one. Hello meltdown. Goodbye best laid plans.

So the tears and tantrum continue.

I’m so tempted to banish her to her bedroom until she’s “ready to use her nice words” or “to apologize for yelling”.

I almost do.

Until I stop for a minute and sit down on the couch next to where she’s sprawled out on the floor. I just look at her. Think about what I should do. Because quite honestly, it feels like I should do something. I’m momentarily at a loss.

It’s so hard not to react to her tears, her anger, her strong emotion. It’s no longer just about her lost secret hideout. It’s everything and I’m a bad mom.

Finally, I pick her up as gently as I can. She resists, but I let her know we need to go relax in her room. I seriously consider just leaving her there. But instead, I stay. I sit on her bed. She still has some crying and stomping to do. So she does.

I wait.

In those moments I still doubt what I’m doing. What am I doing? Waiting? For what? I honestly don’t know.

Then suddenly she joins me on her bed. Plops herself right next to me and collapses into my arms. I wrap my arms around her and know exactly at that moment what I was waiting for.

The storm had passed and now she needed me. Needed to know I’d still be there. That I wouldn’t abandon her at the height of her anger, sadness, or disappointment. And I was there. Ready to accept her back into my open arms. No questions asked.

I don’t even really recall what happened next. All that mattered was that we both were relieved and ready to forge on with the evening plans. She was ready for a snack and some cuddles on the couch and I felt pretty darn good about finally doing the right thing in the midst of a tantrum.

It only took the last 7 years of trial/error/guessing/doubting with two children to figure it out…but my God…what a difference.

Doing nothing is Not reacting to your child’s strong emotion and reigning in your own negative emotions is really hard. Staying close by is even harder. Frankly, it’s easier to leave the room or banish your child to another room so you don’t have to hear and see them play out their meltdown.

But the reward? The reward for staying strong, calm, and close by?

The reward is the knowledge that your child now knows of your unconditional love. You have shown it. More than words ever could.

We eventually did talk about that moment later during our bedtime routine. She apologized. I forgave.

After all, every child needs a secret hideout. And when it’s lost and they can’t find it; they need someone who understands their grief, will hold their hand through it all, and help them find a new one.


Looking for more advice on Tantrums and Meltdowns? Janet Lansbury from Elevating Childcare has just revealed her secret for staying calm when her kids aren’t. And it’s very, very good advice. Believe me, you want to read this and you will feel pretty heroic if you can  manage to do this in the midst of a terrible meltdown.

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7 Responses to The secret hideout or Why you should stay close when your child has a meltdown
  1. meridith
    November 28, 2012 | 8:15 am

    I just lived this LAST NIGHT with my 2 year old son! He is a champion sleeper but decided to fight it last night (probably because our routine was thrown off, Daddy was sick and didn’t get to participate in bedtime). Anyway, he had a full-on meltdown and finally fell asleep sobbing 2 full hours later, in the hallway on our wood floor (on his pillow). I sat down next to him and rubbed his back and softly told him how much Mommy and Daddy love him while he fell asleep. It’s frustrating not to be able to help in the midst of the tantrum, but so sweet knowing I can be there to comfort him when he’s coming down from it.

  2. janetlansbury
    November 28, 2012 | 1:01 pm

    I love this story!!! And you tell it so well. Yes, this is a brilliant example of the process I describe in my “secret” post (thanks so much for sharing it!).

    I have been here so many times: “In those moments I still doubt what I’m doing. What am I doing? Waiting? For what? I honestly don’t know.” :) Love it.

    I also had a recent meltdown experience with my 11 year old son (yes, it still happens at that age, but rarely). I shared this for a commenter on my post, but I’ll share it here, too (if you don’t mind!):

    So, my 11-year-old son has two important things that got scheduled for the same day. One is a very close friend’s birthday party centered around an activity that’s going to be extremely fun. He’d told his friend that he was going to be there. The other is soccer playoffs for a team that he’s not totally committed to, but his participation will very likely decide whether they win or not. The team definitely needs him. Plus, soccer is his joy, especially when he gets to be a hero.

    He’s been feeling very anxious and unable to decide what to do, but it was coming down to the crunch…he had to make up his mind. I offered to call up the mother of the birthday boy to let her know about the difficult decision. He liked that idea. She was lovely. She said she would get the boys together for dinner to celebrate the day before his party and that it would be fine. Seemed like the problem was solved…a happy ending! But my boy was still upset. He started crying. Here are the thoughts that ran through my mind:

    “What the heck, I just made the call for you and everything’s fine! Oh, he must have some feelings that need to come out. Probably all the stress building up about this for the last week. He’s tired — first day back at school after Thanksgiving break and he hasn’t done his homework yet. But this is so unfair to me! I made the call (AS IF IT’S ABOUT ME)! I’ve handled this for him! I fixed it! But he probably also needs to grieve the loss of the party he really wanted to go to. Stay in hero mode. Stay in hero mode. Stay in hero mode. You just wrote about this, idiot!”

    Here’s what I actually said to him softly in between sobs: “Just let your feelings out. You really wanted to go the party.”

    He stopped crying after about 2 or 3 long minutes. He still wasn’t feeling super duper, but he got out his books and started with his homework. About 20 minutes later he suddenly announced, “I’ve decided I’m going to the games”, and he’s been fine ever since.

    We should start a superhero club!
    Cheers and thanks again,

    • Melissa
      December 3, 2012 | 12:59 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing that story, Janet. It really does help to hear how real life plays out and to know we are not alone in this journey.

      Thanks again for your wise words. We should start a superhero club…I like the sound of that. Because honestly, when you can manage to reign in your own inner dialogue and take the time to do what your child actually needs…SO worth it and “super hero” worthy indeed :-)

  3. Jen
    November 28, 2012 | 2:15 pm

    These stories are so inspirational! My son sometimes wakes up very grumpy from a nap. He says he wants to stay and sleep, but then changes his mind. It goes back and forth and I never know whether to just make the decision and take him out of his crib as he has asked or let him stay because the moment I pick him up, he lurches away from me screaming. Nothing I do is right in that moment.
    I am trying so very hard to do “nothing” to stop the tantrum, halt the feelings or distract my child. It’s so darn hard! I want it to stop. I want my ears to stop ringing, I want to move on with our day, I want my neighbors not to freak out because the windows are open and they are on their porch. It’s not about me. My comfort doesn’t matter in these moments and that is HARD to accept. I’m getting better, and I know the technique works, but man is it hard!

    Thanks for this post. You have given me renewed strength for the next wave.

  4. Anna
    December 11, 2012 | 11:08 am

    I’m a long time reader of your blog but first-time commenter. I LOVE this post. truly. it works with my almost-6-year-old – he just needs to know that I can handle his big emotions, and I’ll BE THERE when he needs me. Because, that’s what we all need, right? someone that can listen to us vent, but then help pick up the pieces?

    thanks for writing.

    • Melissa
      December 11, 2012 | 12:32 pm

      “Someone that can listen to us vent, but then help pick up the pieces”…absolutely Anna. Thank you :-)

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