What to Do When Meltdowns Happen

We’ve all been there, wondering how in the world we’re supposed to react when our child is out of control.  Here are some tips for dealing with meltdowns from children of all ages, not just the little ones.

  1. Start with compassion. Understand the child’s phase of development and inner state.  This sounds too academic for many, but it’s the answer to so much conflict.  If your child is very young, or has had traumatic experiences, realize that emotional regulation in the brain is not yet developed. This is why we see so many meltdowns.  Compassion can come when parents realize that these kids are not being “naughty”, but just having a hard time regulating HUGE feelings.  It’s exactly the same for tweens and teens.  For great info on this topic, view PBS’ Inside the Teenage Brain. It will help you see what’s happening inside the child, so you can be relieved of judging him or her.  It’s not talked about much, but many parents don’t like being harsh with their children, as it goes against their loving nature.  This is the way out of that trap.
  2. Calm yourself.  You may have heard me talk about children’s amygdalas firing in their brains when they overreact to a perceived threat.  As adults, we’re in a much better position than are children to have perspective on our responses.  We can think about our own behavior in a way that kids can’t.  That said, adults have amygdalas, too! We overreact when we feel a threat from a defiant child. So this takes some forethought, to decide in advance that we’re not going to have such a huge reaction. We can do it, because the payoff for not overreacting is tremendous.  Remaining calm can  prevent that all-too-common volley of screaming when you lose it with your child.  Tantrums are now reduced from 20-30 minutes to only a few, and their intensity is lowered, too. Well worth it.
  3. Connect when you can. Kids of all ages who are having a  meltdown need the opposite of what it seems.  Most of us get the urge to “teach them a lesson” and then “leave them alone.” But the best approach is to connect, as an upset child is actually asking for your love when the upset occurs.  So as soon as the storm has passed, reassure the child that you understand he or she was having a very strong feeling, and that you are not angry.  Ask how you can help.  Listen deeply, and reflect what you hear.  “I hear you saying you were frustrated that I didn’t give you what you wanted right away.” Then pause.  Let the message sink in to the child – the message that he has been seen and heard.  You don’t need to fix the problem.  Listening deeply will soothe the strong feelings.
  4. Make a plan.  Have a family meeting to discuss times when meltdowns occur.  It’s healthy to talk about this, and though your child may not want to, if you approach strong feelings as perfectly normal parts of being alive, you may see more willingness to participate.  For more information on family meetings: how to plan, who does what, what to say, and ways to recover from meltdowns, read Present Moment Parenting: The Guide to a Peaceful Life with Your Intense Child.  Or listen on Audible.
  5. Remember that parenting in a compassionate way goes against most adults’ ways of thinking.  We think that our authority should rule, and children should just listen and comply.  If this has not worked for you, there is a better way.  Give yourself time and space to adjust, and don’t blame yourself.  You were only doing what you knew how to do.  Now it’s time for something that works.

For help with his or any other parenting issue, parent coaching can help.  Click here for more information.

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