Meltdown in Children & Mass Attendance by Deacon Tom Fox


fox_tom_1This may be a somewhat unusual column for an older (who said aging?) deacon who most often writes about faith and spirituality and such. But I’ve recently been close to something that I’d like to talk with you about…. perhaps asking your ideas or help.

Without going into details, I have recently been around… and in two instances actually involved in MELTDOWNs in children. I might better be writing this column for Faith and Family Live in a blog format and asking for your feedback and experience with this troubling area of raising some children. But here at Catholic Mom, I wondered if you have had much experience with this ‘unbalanced displeasure’ in your young ones? If you have experienced it — how often has it happened? Are there specific ‘triggers’ such as plans being changed? Changes in schedule? Failure to get enough rest? Family changes?

As I started working on this column — I floated these same questions on Facebook, Twitter and Plurk. I heard from people who said it was related (only) to the child not having enough rest. I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with that — but I wonder also about over-stimulation of our children these days.

Someone suggested whispering quietly that the behavior was not acceptable. Continuing to whisper until the meltdown ends. Someone said that they just ignore it — continue to ignore it until the child realizes that it has to end and that it won’t get the better of the parent.

Someone said something like this as you are calmly speaking to the child going through the meltdown… “I understand you are mad/upset/angry/frustrated because (________ insert reason). I understand…. I understand.”

I’m not talking about autistic behavior or about children with psychological issues. Instead, I’m referring to children who are a joy to be with under most circumstances. But in some, there are short periods of complete inability to deal with their emotions and circumstances. And what happens is crying, loud and very emotional speaking — perhaps even including acting out, striking or uncharacteristic language.

So have you had such experiences? Our children are grown now so we don’t deal with this in our immediate family. And to be truthful — I don’t remember this sort of extreme behavior in our children… and I hasten to assure they were far from perfect kids. But in three different families that we know and love… in these three families where there are good and loving parents and no significant emotional issues going on — I’ve seen these meltdowns. And back in Colorado, I knew a young family with a doctor and his wife and two young children. And there were some episodes of this phenomenon in this foursome.

I recently completed a distance learning course on deacon ministry to families and married couples. We had no training and I profess no competence in this area at all. And so I struggle to know what the right and proper handling for these episodes is. As a deacon.. as someone who cares for and loves to be around young families… I would love some spiritual and practical skills for ministry in this area.

Some sources suggest letting the meltdowns run their course and then helping to restore emotional normality. One resource suggested recognizing the beginnings of a ‘meltdown’ and naming what the behavior usually involves — in effect telling the young 3 or 4 year old: “Here is what happens when you become this upset…..” And this resource suggested that it will help to defuse the behavior by predicting it in advance. Sounds a little strange — but it may be that a child will decide not to do something because an adult says this is what I think you will do. And I have seen some indications that firm, non-acceptance even to the extent of physical restraint is necessary to ‘teach’ that such behavior isn’t proper and must stop.

A pause for prayer. That’s certainly what such behavior  and any parenting trial or challenge calls for. A prayer … that’s what I’m doing as I work on this column. Asking God for help for moms and dads in this time and age. As much as we can say that things never really change, I’m wondering if things aren’t changing in and with our young, young children? I pray — I ask Mother Mary to intercede for you who are living these child-rearing years trying to know what is right.

And this prayer for help is a way of working into a mildly related area. How do you react to those times when you go to Mass and your wonder-kid decides to become a distraction or a deacon-in-training who also wants to preach? I was talking with a mother about this. She had come to a daily Mass with her two quite young ones. And one of the children was just beyond the mother’s capability to tolerate in a Mass setting. I listened as the mom said she went home and called her husband and cried.
She wanted… she needed Mass and quiet that morning and it wasn’t given to her.

All I could say to her was that somedays are gifts… holy, peaceful, God-speaking-in-your-ear days at Mass. And some days are your gifts to God. You are giving God the respect and recognition that kids will be kids — and that you are giving them example. There is grace in example to children. Yes — you parents gain graces from example — even if you don’t get your private time with Jesus.

Hang in there dear hearts. I have said this many times here — I promise you it is true. I pray for you. My wife and I pray for you. And in some way that we’ll never know till heaven – God honors our prayers as make-up for the prayers you are unable to do. Hang in there. I love you. Thanks for choosing parenthood. (And even though I said I’m not aging — there may come a time that I won’t be able to pray. I will need your prayers then as perhaps you need ours now!)

Deacon Tom

Copyright 2009 Deacon Tom Fox


About Author

Deacon Tom Fox and his wife Dee are co-hosts of the CATHOLIC VITAMINS Podcast for over 6 1/2 years. Tom has also been a member of the Catholic Mom columnists team for eight years, and was a regular contributor to the Catholic Moments Podcast for three years. Most recently, Deacon Tom has been leading a project to bring Catholic radio to the north central Arizona community where he and Dee reside. Blessings!


  1. OH so many comments to make – a discussion that needs to happen in more places than just this website – and so little time while my own little ones are sleeping. I have been on both sides of this. Before I had children, there was a family with a 3 to 4 yr old girl that we couldn’t tolerate sitting near. It was too distracting and upsetting, in part because the girl would be rough with her parents. For my own children, lack of sufficient rest is a definite trigger. I also know from experience that changes of schedule or unexpected events can wreak havoc for SOME children. This is usually something seen across the board, eg a substitute teacher in a class will also throw them for a loop.
    If you are interested in overstimulation of children (and I think this is a big problem) get a copy of Jane Healy’s “Endangered Minds”. After I recently finished this book and reflected on its contents, I nearly became despondent wondering if our culture would ever see what is going on with our children. I actually pondered in the shower one morning if I needed to start an apostolate of praying for mothers/parents and the rearing of children. This book also addresses some ideas about why we may be seeing less self-control and ability to delay in children.

  2. . . . continued
    As for the practical matter of handling children in Mass. . . .In our family we have place a priority of being at Mass together as a family. I dislike using cry rooms because I don’t think it encourages children to work on their self control. I have no problems if other people find them useful, it’s just not consistent with the path I choose. I work hard to bring appropriate items to keep my kids quiet at church. I cut up the beautifully illustrated cards that we receive in the mail from religious orders to make puzzles. I bring a pocket photo book with pictures of family and also holy cards in it. Yes I let my children draw or doodle in Mass and if they engage me, I usually try to draw a religious item, etc etc. We practice the week’s psalm at home so that they can actively participate in what’s going on. We sit in the front so they can see. And yes, that means sometimes Father can see us. Because we usually sit in the same place, we know the families around us. Many of the others who sit up front near us are older and have been through raising families and are supportive and sympathetic. I have noticed in my own children that usually if someone they don’t know VERY well, makes strong eye contact with them and smiles or holds their attention, it tends to quiet my children down because it puts them in shy mode. If a meltdown has already started, this doesn’t usually work. A child in a full blown fit is rarely aware of what is going on around them. I hope this doesn’t sound like preaching. I only intend to share what has worked for us, _most_ of the time. We have had to take our children outside occasionally. Because our community has been so supportive, we able to remain in our pew unless the children becomes noisy enough to carry beyond a pew or two. (I think!) My heart goes out to parents of young children who don’t find support in their parishes. I know it is a pain to be distracted at Mass. But if families feel pushed out of Mass, then just exactly when will we get them back? When the children are old enough to sit quietly, they and their parents already feel that the church is no place for them. Some people snicker about families having their kids in religious ed for 1st communion and then not seeing them again until confirmation. But some parishes want to see the kids for baptism and then not again until 1st communion!

    It is difficult to know what to do and the course of teaching self control to children will vary from family to family. I guess the “answer” is that each family should be actively seeking whatever course it is that helps their child develop and hopefully the all-out meltdowns will be kept to a minimum. They will happen. But hopefully the child is experiencing other situations, outside of Mass, where it is easier and more appropriate to go through the teaching process. Thank you so much for your prayers Deacon. Please keep praying and keep the dialogue going. Our family will be praying for you and for all the holy men and women, lay and professed who are helping us on our journey. P.S. I became a follower because I was looking for appropriate activities for my children at Mass.

  3. Catherine… thanks for your thoughtful and helpful words on this topic of working with…. parenting and ‘surviving’ the early years with children. I was in a deacon formation session over the weekend. The facilitator was a social worker with loads of years of working with people, families and clergy in a variety of consulting situations. She reminded us that some situations don’t have positive endings…. that certain of life’s events and episodes are best recognized as unfortunate results of illness, misfortune, sin in the world, personality differences, etc. She trained us to help people to see that they must come to those conclusions themselves from time to time. May God help us to recognize the times when we must be loving but firm parents… may He help us to see the times when we it is best to walk out of Mass and out wait the terrible twos or whatever…. The weekend is or was a reminder that in all of my work, sometimes there isn’t a smile at the end of the paragraph. Blessings. Continued prayers…


Leave A Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.