Are you frustrated by meltdowns at your house? Does this sound familiar to you? “I can’t believe it happened again! My kids are finally playing well together, one of them upsets the other and instantly ~ major meltdown. Of course, I overreact and everything goes downhill from there. How can I stop handling meltdowns so poorly? I feel like I am just making it worse and all I really want to do is help them calm down.”
Or maybe it’s your teen who is having a meltdown because you had to say “No” to their latest weekend plans.
Our kids have meltdowns for many reasons. Teens might have a meltdown because they think you are being unfair, or because they’re angry or anxious. Your younger kids meltdown for the same reason and also when they are overtired or overwhelmed.
Whatever the reason, handling meltdowns is a parental nightmare, especially if they happen in public! Have you ever done what I did? I once left my shopping cart and took my kids out of the store without buying anything! It was so embarrassing.
Let’s figure out how we can better deal with meltdowns.
Step # 1 – Stay calm (or as calm as possible!)
First of all, YOU are in control of your emotions. So it is important that you don’t let your emotions be sucked into the tornado of emotions that your child is displaying. Too often, you have the tendency to get angry at your child or yell at them to “Calm down.” Your emotional response only causes higher emotions for your child.
Staying calm actually lowers their emotions. While you are trying to stay calm, it is helpful to be silent. That’s right! Don’t say anything. This takes practice, but it helps to keep you from overreacting. While you are holding your tongue, settle your emotions. Count to 10, if that helps. Think about what caused your child to meltdown.
Step #2 – Name the emotion (the trigger that caused the meltdown)
Try to figure out what emotion set them off. Was it anger, frustration, a sense of unfairness, anxiety, being overtired or overwhelmed? Once you have an idea about the emotion, name if for your child. You can use sentences like this: “I can see you are angry, that’s understandable.” “You must feel like this is really unfair, I can see why you feel that way.”
When you give a name to the emotions that your child is feeling, your child feels understood. This helps them to begin to settle down. If you use a normal tone and simply tell them about their emotions, they begin to calm because their emotions start to match your emotions. It even helps if you whisper to them. This works especially well when you are in public.
Step #3 – Give them a choice, should I stay or should I go?
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your child is to give them space to have their meltdown. This is especially true of older kids. If they want you to leave them alone, be sure to tell them that you are ready to talk whenever they are ready. Assure them that you are supportive. If your child wants you to stay with them, assure them that you are willing to be there with them for as long as it takes.
By giving your child choices and affirming their feelings you activate their brain to do more positive thinking. This helps to end the meltdown. Your child begins to feel safe, they learn that you can be trusted, and that you love them. All of these things help them to feel less stress.
Step #4 – Tell them it’s normal to feel this way. Tell them you love them.
Feeling big emotions, like a meltdown, can be scary for kids too. They wonder if anyone else has ever felt this way. They think they are crazy or broken somehow. That’s why naming the emotion is so important. It helps them to identify it. They feel more normal knowing they are angry and lots of people get angry. Use soothing words that help calm them and normalize what they are experiencing. Things like: “You’re frustrated right now, that’s okay. Everyone gets frustrated at times.” “You’re sad and don’t understand why. That understandable. I’ve felt that way too.”
Remind them that you love them. Don’t expect them to instantly recover, but say the words so that their brain can process that and remember it. When meltdowns occur and parents say the wrong thing, kids remember that into adulthood! They feel abandoned in their emotions, so reminding them of your love helps to ground them. And add some physical touch if that’s called for.
You probably think some of this could work for you, but some of it is way too hard. You’re right. Each of us parents in their own way. None of us is perfect. You need to tailor your actions to your kids and your personality. So here are a few additional thoughts that can be added to the 4 steps and may make it easier for you to get started.
For young kids, distractions work very well to stop a meltdown. Sometimes ignoring it also works, but don’t do this for older kids. They just feel abandoned. Humor is also a great tool for meltdowns, especially if they are caused by being overtired, frustrated or overwhelmed. A bit of humor disrupts the meltdown, kind of like rebooting a computer.
Kids who have frequent meltdowns may be calmed by using a favorite toy, blanket, stuffed animal or special music. Experiment with these for your child. Lastly, use Brain Breaks. Brain Breaks are calming routines that kids can learn when they are not upset. Then they turn to those activities to help calm their emotions when they are upset. You can find out more about Brain Breaks here.
Remember, just like your child, you’re not the only parent who deals with handling meltdowns. Every parent does at one time or another. And every parent has had good days and bad days in the parenting department. So, give yourself a break and plan for the next meltdown by reviewing these steps. I bet you’ll surprise yourself.