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Read Monica Jackman’s article on parenting “Planning Ahead: Tips for Preventing Meltdowns”

Planning Ahead: Tips for Preventing Meltdowns, by Monica Jackman, OTD, MHS, OTR/L

I remember the first time my middle child dropped to the cold floor of a local department store and proceeded to scream, fists and legs flailing, in protest of a denied Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy. I watched him put up a valiant effort, giving curious onlookers unapologetic steely glares, as I vowed silently never to bring him to the store again. As busy parents, we often must undertake day-to-day errands with our children in tow. While activities such as shopping and banking are essential parts of our adult lives, children are mostly hard-wired for playing and tend to be very impulsive by nature. During the developmental stage designed for exploring and interacting with their environments, some difficulties can arise during two potentially problematic situations: “I want!” and waiting.

“I want!” Stores are designed to tempt consumers of all ages into purchasing items that they do not need. This can result in meltdowns for children who may see and respond to a visually appealing display of toys or snacks. Marketers and advertisers have specialized knowledge in influencing consumers to buy, and their market includes our children. Here are some tips for helping to address children’s demands for “I want!”:

• Before going into a store, make a list of what you are going to purchase, and then share it with your child. Explain that you are only going to buy what is on the list and nothing else.

• If your child is older, allow her or him to help you check off each list item. If your child is younger, you can sing the list like a song. The list can also be adapted with pictures for children who prefer visual cues. It may take longer to prepare for the trip, but can ultimately save time if there are no tantrums to address. Be sure to stick to the list, and refrain from any impulse buying. I used to think that I did not have time to prepare for an errand by making a list, but I have found that it never fails to ultimately save me both effort and money.

Waiting  No matter our age, we all spend a good deal of time in today’s society waiting. As adults, we can get impatient even though we have a good understanding of time. Children often have a much more difficult time with waiting. They may get frustrated when waiting for our attention or assistance when we are driving, or get antsy while waiting in line. When children have a concrete visual cue that tells them how long they will have to wait, they can know that there is an end in sight. Here are some tips for supporting a child to wait while minimizing distress:

• Use a timer. While it is often impossible to predict how long we may have to wait in line, we can estimate and count it down on a timer or watch. A visual timer such as the Time Timer, a portable device and now available as a mobile app, is a terrific and child-friendly tool. You can tie the timer to an alternate activity in case the wait is longer than estimated. For example, “After the timer goes off, it should be our turn. But if it is not, then we will play a fun game (e.g., I Spy) until it is our turn.”

• Use a visual cue, such as a picture of a green light and red light or a card with the word “wait.” The child can hold the red light or wait card, and then the adult can take the wait card or trade the red light for the green light card when there is no longer a need to wait. This can be especially helpful when an adult is driving. The mother can post the green light picture when she is available to help the child and post the red light card when she is busy driving and unable to assist. Patience is an important lesson for children. Through practice, a child will better understand how to control their behaviors while waiting his or her turn.

Dr. Monica Jackman is an occupational therapist with American Health & Wellness Institute (AHWI) in Port Saint Lucie, FL.