Managing Meltdowns

Strategies for Helping our Children Manage their Big Emotions

Diane McGregor, Kitchener, ON

 

No need to explain what a meltdown is! As parents, we have all experienced those moments when our child becomes overwhelmed by emotions and seems to lose complete control of their behaviour. We have also, likely, experienced feeling overwhelmed and powerless in these moments ourselves.

Children have meltdowns for any number of reasons. Here are just a few examples:

Scenario #1

Scenario #2

Scenario #3

Each of these examples has some common characteristics….our child is experiencing an emotion that is creating some level of arousal or tension in him or her. The meltdown, which may seem like it has come out of nowhere, occurs when an added stressor overwhelms their ability to cope with what they are feeling. In the examples above, the stressors are in the form of a demand or expectation (such as go to school or go to bed) or the setting of a limit (no French fries).

What can we do?

Believe it or not, our relationship with our child or teen is our most powerful “tool” in helping them through their distress. A meltdown is not just a tantrum, it is truly a state of distress (for both child and parent!) and our children need our help with their big, run-a-way emotions. When we take a moment to connect first (before correcting or directing their behavior) we immediately begin the process of helping our kids manage their emotions better.

Connection is very powerful, for all of us, because it calms and soothes our distress. A warm hug, an affectionate look, an understanding tone of voice helps those run-a-way emotions begin to calm and puts the thinking part of our brain back in control. When we are thinking again, we can start to problem solve.

But it does not stop there! Connection also builds feelings of security and belonging and when we feel safe and secure in our relationship, we become motivated to do things that will keep that connection going. This means that taking a moment to connect with our kids when they are in distress actually helps our children to calm their big emotions–it helps them be better able to talk about what is happening and motivates them to behave differently.

Tips for connecting with your child during a meltdown:

 

Try to “tune into” and understand what your child is experiencing.

Is he tired, hungry or over-stimulated, such as the boy in the grocery store? Have you been so busy all day long, with no time for connection, like the boy who just wanted some time with his mom? Watch their facial expressions and body-language for clues about what they are feeling. Frustrated? Angry? Hungry? Tired? Scared? Worried? It truly could be anything.

Take a few minutes to listen.

Believe it or not, they are trying to tell you something about what they are feeling and needing (with their words and their body language).Be curious, ask questions, listen to what they have to say. Help them find words to describe what they are feeling.

Communicate you understand their feelings.

You can say things like, “I know you are really tired and hungry, honey. We have been shopping for a long time.” Or, “I know we have been so busy all day today. You wish we could have some time together today”. Empathy builds connection!

Offer comfort and affection.

Sit nearby, invite a hug, rub their back, hold their hand—whatever gesture of comfort works for your child. They may not accept this right away, but continue to stay available and offer again in a few moments. Monitor your own tone-of-voice and facial expressions so that your child can truly hear what you are saying. Let your child know you are there for them and ready to help with how they are feeling.

Be patient.

Calming, getting control over emotions and becoming ready to problem solve might take a bit of time. Be patient, stay attentive, be willing to support your child, and he or she will come around. It might not take as long as you think it!

Figure out a solution to the problem together.

You do not have to give into your child’s demand. You can say “no” and stay connected! Maintain your limits with kindness and firmness but if you ask for their help in figuring out a solution you can build cooperation.



Research Says...

What is going on? We know from brain science, that during intense emotional arousal—big emotions—the emotional, fight-flight centres of our brain become over active and the thinking, problem solving centres become underactive. It is like our emotions have hijacked our ability to think and problem solve.  Daniel Seigel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, calls this “flipping our lid”—when our “upstairs” thinking brain is no longer driving the truck and our “downstairs” emotional brain is firing in any direction. Dr. Seigel talks about the importance of putting the lid back on–of calming our brains and bodies so that we are able to once again connect with the thinking and smart parts of our brain. CONNECTION is the key to making this happen!


Comments

2 Responses to “Managing Meltdowns”

  1. Teresa Teresa says:

    I love the little cartoon segments. . . very possible situations

  2. Victoria Victoria says:

    a great explanantion of melt downs understanding the brain a little makes me more understanding of meltdowns both mine and my childs.

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