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5 Preventive Maintenance Habits to Keep Your Child Out of the Breakdown Lane


"Dr. Laura....I don't understand how to even begin to validate our very strong willed 2.5 son when he is screaming at me from inside the van and won't get in his seat so we can get his big sister from school and the 6 month old is there as well..."

In my last post, When You Just Don't Have Time for That Meltdown, I pointed out that Preventive Maintenance can help you avoid meltdowns at those inconvenient times, like when you're trying to get your kids in the car to go somewhere. What's preventive maintenance?

Well, what happens to your car if you don't fill it with gas, change the oil, and give it a regular tune up? It ends up in the breakdown lane. Life with children isn't so different. Unfortunately, parents aren't given a preventive maintenance plan for their children. But if you don't refill your child's love tank, roughhouse with him daily so he gets some good giggling in, and give him regular one-on-one time, you can count on more breakdown time. Especially if there's a relatively new baby in the family, or if you're transitioning from conventional parenting to gentle parenting and your child has some old stuffed emotions to process.

Unfortunately, once your car is in the breakdown lane, your options are limited. Similarly, there are only so many things you can do once your two year old is in meltdown mode when you're trying to buckle him into his carseat, or your twelve year old is lying to you about drinking with his friends. The trick is to prevent the breakdown to begin with.

By the time you're having a problem with your child, it's hard to see how you could have prevented it. And yes, many kids have issues that present real challenges for parents. But if you're having an ongoing problem with your child, it's worth asking what kinds of preventive maintenance might keep you from ending up in the breakdown lane so often. And if you have more than one child, you certainly can't always be available for meltdowns when your child "blows." That means that your primary parenting strategy has to be prevention.

Here's your 5-step preventive maintenance plan.

1. Make Empathy your go-to way of relating to your child.

Empathy strengthens your relationship with your child and helps her feel understood. That makes her WANT to cooperate, and it helps you understand her better. It means she feels safer to feel her emotions as they happen, instead of stuffing them in her emotional backpack where they'll burst out uncontrolled at a later time. Empathy is especially important when you're setting limits. Of course your child needs guidance, but she can’t accept the guidance if the relationship isn’t there to support it. Ninety percent of your interactions with your child should be about connecting, so she can accept the 10 percent that are about correcting. And yes, peaceful parents correct. Kids do need limits and guidance, but they're more effective when they're set with empathy.

2. Daily Roughhousing to Get Kids Laughing.

Children build up anxiety (mild fear) all day long, and they need a way to let it out. What do they have to be anxious about? They're small people in a big, chaotic, unsafe world. They feel pushed around a lot. They also feel scared; what if you stopped loving them, or died? Luckily, nature has designed humans with a great way to vent anxiety: giggling. Laughter really is the best medicine, and the best way to get your child laughing is physical games that very mildly provoke a fear response. Roughhousing also triggers bonding hormones, so it builds trust. This is important for all kids, but critical if your child has any past traumas to work out, large or small. That includes past punishment and yelling, if you're making the transition from conventional to peaceful parenting. (One caveat: I don't recommend tickling to get kids laughing. It is a different physiological response so it doesn't accomplish the goal of release, and it can make kids feel out of control. If your child begs for tickling, try "pretend tickling" where you threaten to tickle, but don't actually make contact.)

3. Special Time.

Life has a way of disconnecting us. Spending one-on-one time with each child daily is your most important tool to build trust, stay connected and help your child express his emotions. Most parents tell me that once they start daily Special Time, their problems with their child diminish dramatically, whether the problem is aggression between siblings, tantrums, or defiance.

4. Use Routines.

You don't have to be a slave to the schedule, but regular routines minimize your job as head cop, reduce power struggles and increase your child's sense of safety. If you work with your child to take photos of the routine and make a chart, she can start taking charge of moving through the routine, so she doesn't resist as much.

5. Welcoming Emotions, including Scheduled meltdowns.

What's a scheduled meltdown? It's the same meltdown your child would have had at the playground or supermarket, except you give him a chance to have it at home, at your convenience. Yes, it is good for your child to cry, in your warm presence. Once he feels those scary emotions, they evaporate. He feels better and therefore acts better.

So welcome those tears; they're nature's way of healing us. When your child is cranky, aggressive, or simply seems unhappy, instead of sighing and hoping she'll snap out of it, think of those early warning signals like red lights on the dashboard. Time for some preventive maintenance in the form of a scheduled meltdown.

First, acknowledge any irritation you have at your child, and shift yourself to a more empathic frame of mind, so you can be compassionate. Is this easy? No. In fact, I wrote a whole book about it (or mostly about it): Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. The more you do this, the easier it becomes. But it's essential, because unless you do, your child won't feel safe enough to move past her anger to the more upsetting feelings that are behind both the anger and her "bad" behavior. So use one of the many posts on this website that show you how to shift yourself back into a calmer state, such as this one: When Your Child Makes You Want to Scream: 10 Steps To Calm.

Your goal is to help your child express what's going on. Most kids can't articulate it, of course, but if you help him, he can show you. How? Set a kind limit about whatever he's doing:


"Sweetie, you're yelling, and that hurts my ears. Can you tell me what you want in an inside voice?"

If he gets angry, ratchet up your empathy a notch:


"Oh, Sweetie, I see you're upset...I'm sorry this is so hard."

Behind his anger there are tears and fears, and your goal is to help him feel safe enough to go behind the anger to show you his hurts. If you can stay compassionate enough (which is the challenge for most parents), he'll cry.

Remember that showing you the more vulnerable feelings driving the anger is what's therapeutic, not the anger. He needs a witness to brave all that hurt, loneliness, powerlessness and fear that he's been stuffing down. If you can manage your own fear in the face of his big feelings and stay calm, your child will feel safe enough to cry and shake and sweat. Soon he'll be in your arms crying, and then back to his best self. And since you've gotten the meltdown out of the way at a time when you can really listen, you've just dodged the tantrum that would have happened next time you try to buckle him into his carseat.

So that's preventive maintenance. Children raised with empathy, roughhousing, special time, routines and welcoming emotions are better able to regulate their emotions, and therefore their behavior. So you can spend more time laughing and connecting, and less time in the breakdown lane.

Of course, this raises a number of other questions.

Click here to watch Dr. Laura's video, "Preventive Maintence for Every Family." 

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