by Bridgett Ross
“Take a deep breath in, and exhale slowly.” I have witnessed these words ease overwhelming emotions countless times. I even use them on myself.
When speaking these words to my 3-year-old son, however, he responds, “I DON’T WANT TO BREATHE!”
Okay. I guess I have to get creative.
“WOW!” I announce. “This leaf! Watch how it flies!” I place a dry leaf in the palm of my hand and blow. The leaf flitters away. The crying stops. I have his attention. “Do you think you can do it?” His legs suddenly work again. He walks over to me. Deep inhale: he prepares to blow the leaf from my hand. Long exhale to be certain the leaf flies as far as it can. He laughs, and does it again.
I have “tricked” my son into relaxation breathing on many occasions. When melting down at a campfire, he attempted to put out the flame with his breath. On one hike he made ripples in a puddle and later blew all the seeds off a dandelion.
Like most children, my son behaves best outdoors. Also like most children, he has meltdowns even in optimal settings.
Autumn is our most active season. The desert cools to more manageable temperatures for hiking, rock climbing, and biking. Cool nights invite campfires and in-tent snuggles. We do not want the threat of meltdowns to keep us from sharing outdoor adventures with our son.
In preparation for autumn, I asked other parents how they manage meltdowns in nature.
Food & Water
Whenever asked for tips on maintaining a post-child outdoors lifestyle, my husband and I respond, “as long as you have plenty of food, water, and a flexible attitude, you can pretty much do anything (within reason).” Jillian, a mother of twin 3-year-old boys, agreed, “Never underestimate the power of a quick snack or drink of water to change one’s mood.” Consequently, before any outdoor adventure we load up on trail mix and fill our canteens.
A Flexible Attitude
The flexible attitude might mean cutting a trip short, sleeping in the car instead of a tent, or stopping every 3 steps to grab a snack. Dad James summarized the flexible attitude perfectly when he described planning bike trips with his sons, “I try to keep my rides with them short, but allow for ways to extend them if they’re showing they’re ready for more.”
This or That?
Children have so little control over their lives. The more we can offer options, the more likely we are to sidestep meltdowns. Nature provides many opportunities for options Should we collect acorns or sticks? Do you want one nut and two berries, or one berry and two nuts? When hiking, Holly R. says, “I always give him the choice to pick which way to go.”
Often times, meltdowns occur because expectations are unclear or unmet. The more clearly you define an expectation, the more likely a child is to meet it. Expectations may be implicit or explicit. For instance, a parent may offer an apple or carrot for snack. Implicit in this choice is the expectation that snack will be healthy.
When rock climbing, Jennifer explicitly states that her son is not allowed to play near the crag without a helmet. Every time he approaches the crag she gently reminds him of the rule and returns him to his play area until he agrees to wear the helmet. While he may pout or even cry, it does not take long for him to obey the rule with little emotional reaction.
“Meltdowns will happen no matter what, so it might as well be somewhere scenic,” reflects mom Tamsen. That pretty much sums up the best attitude to have about meltdowns. Parental attitudes can communicate expectations, and they often take the form of thoughts that set the stage for meltdowns.
“Last week he happily hiked 1 mile, why can’t he make it more than 5 steps without whining today?
It’s my birthday; he should be on his best behavior!
Other kids can do this, why can’t he?
He doesn’t know how lucky he is to be doing things like this!”
These types of expectations can create an inner dialogue that perpetuates a meltdown cycle. The child whines, we feel annoyed, the child then cries, we feel irritated, etc. Accepting that meltdowns occur even in the best circumstances will put us in a better emotional space to meet our children?s needs, which leads to everyone having more fun.
Reminding children to shift their attention from their internal turmoil to the natural environment really helps to manage meltdowns. Most parents call these “distractions,” but sometimes they are actually the opposite. When melting down, children get so wrapped up in their emotions that they remove themselves from the present moment. Nature-inspired “distractions” remind them to connect to the environment and be mindful.
Some of my favorite suggestions from parents include:
“Point out things on the trail, like trail marker numbers or shapes, flowers, rocks, birds.” – Jill
“We came across a snail the other day that became a fun way to teach her how to slow down (she was running far ahead) so we said ‘slow as a snail.'” – Rebecca
“We often take a walk together, or sit and snuggle and count the stars or sing songs.” – Tamsen
Outdoors activities and games like scavenger hunts, nature bingo, follow-the-leader, locating your position on a map, etc.
You can involve others in preventing and managing meltdowns through cooperative or competitive play. For instance, many parents encourage the “big kids” to teach “little kids.” Others may suggest a race or friendly competition through various games. Tamsen D. suggested, “Play hide-and-go-seek. Basically, whoever’s turn it is to hide has to go forward on the trail to find their hiding spot. It keeps everyone moving!” We recently followed Tamsen’s advice, which led to our 3-year-old son trekking two miles with zero complaints.
Potential meltdowns can cause parents to avoid outside adventure. Having ideas on how to navigate such emotional outbursts can ensure that you get your family outside as much as you want.
Bridgett Ross is a rock-climbing mom and psychologist in San Diego, CA. Four years ago, she started the Rock Climbing Moms (& Dads) to celebrate rock climbing parents and share tips on maintaining an outdoor lifestyle with children. To contact Bridgett or learn more about her psychology practice, please visit Ross Psychology.