When I flew for the first time with my oldest, I remember hearing the flight attendant give his shpiel and reminding those of us traveling with young children to put on our oxygen masks first before our child. This struck me as odd. I did everything for my daughter first. She ate first, she got her poop dealt with first, and she got to sleep first. All of my needs were secondary.

Why all of sudden was someone telling me to do this differently? Of course, I was going to put the oxygen mask on her first.

A quick conversation with the flight attendants disabused me of that notion.

Why Your Oxygen Mask Goes on First

The answer is quite simple and it has everything to do with keeping the air flowing. If you place the oxygen mask on your child first when the cabin pressure drops (which equals less air to breathe) then you pass out from a lack of oxygen before you can put your own mask on. Then, who helps out your child?

If you put the mask on you first, you can quickly get the mask on your child without the fear of losing that precious supply of oxygen.

Now, of course, I’m not really worried about those little plastic masks dropping out of the plane’s ceiling the next time that I fly, but this is a really good metaphor for something that we need to do when our kids are melting down. Put on your oxygen mask first.

Don’t Parent in a State of Fight-Flight-Freeze

When our kids start to meltdown in the morning because we have run out of cocoa sugar bombs (not an actual cereal), our body starts to react by becoming stressed. We might tense up, start to get a headache, or even notice our stomach rumbling. And then, we react.

Often, that reaction isn’t a good one. “Just find something else to eat!” we might shout. Or we might start turning to threats to “encourage” them.

Here’s the problem. Your kid is already a little dysregulated because some expectation wasn’t met and they suddenly feel out of sorts. Lacking the emotional vocabulary to explain what’s going on, they are just going into survival mode because something doesn’t feel right to them. It isn’t misbehavior. It’s a stress reaction.

At the same time, you are having your stress reaction because you just want the morning to go smoothly. When your stress reaction meets their stress reaction, things can start to escalate. Neither of you feels safe and without safety, each of you will continue to function by trying to fight, flee, or freeze.

Finding Your Oxygen Mask

The first step is to get yourself to pause. The STOP method is a great way of doing this. It’s a problem-solving strategy that encourages slowing down and assessing before reacting.

Taking a few deep breaths will also go a long way. When we breathe slowly, we can counteract the body’s natural reaction to stress and start to get things back on track. Try belly breathing (without lying down), Figure 8 breathing, or Square Breathing. Each of these techniques is a simple way to calm the body and give the mind space to react.

Next, you need to notice that this is a stressful moment. Your child is having a rough morning and is not out to get you, even if it feels like that. Getting yourself to react non-defensively is the key here. Remind yourself that your child isn’t in full control of her behavior and her sense of logic and rational thinking are on hiatus at the moment.

Finally, shrink your reaction. Limit how much you are saying because your child is already overwhelmed. Use a calm tone and monitor your body language – any tenseness can be perceived as threatening. Your goal is to help your child not feel threatened and in doing so, you also reduce your stress level. Resist the urge to stare down your child as if your glare will change things. Instead, make eye contact intermitted and provide a little bit of physical space.

Gradually, as your body re-regulates, your child’s body will too.

If you are interested in learning more about how to help your kid through emotional challenges and keep your cool, please check out my e-course Dealing with Temper Tantrums and Other Challenging Behaviors.