We’ve all been there….
You’re tired and stressed and your child begins to have an intense meltdown.
You think you know what to do until you’re caught in the highly charged frenzy of your child’s tantrum and find yourself reacting…what do you do now?
If you’re like most parents, your immediate reaction is to want to make it stop.
When your child is kicking and screaming, especially if he is yelling hateful words or violently throwing things at you or even hitting you – of course you will naturally get triggered by this.
It can trigger your parental impulse to discipline. It’s also likely to trigger you into anger or a deeper state of stress.
Remember that when you are emotionally stressed, you don’t have complete access to your rational thinking brain in that moment. When you’re in fight or flight, the pre-frontal cortex part of your brain goes sort of off-line and it’s difficult to think clearly. If you’re in “fight” mode, you’ll want to yell back and punish. If you’re in “flight” mode, you’ll want to get away from your child – either by putting him in time out or taking your own time out.
Here’s what is important to understand:
When your child is in the midst of a meltdown, she needs your help. She’s in a stress response and she needs you to help her process the big scary feelings. She doesn’t have the capacity to think through and comprehend what you’re saying. Trying to reason with her, especially yelling or punishing, will make it worse. Isolating her in a time out is also counterproductive since it gives her the message that it’s wrong to have these feelings that she has no control over. She needs you to be with her – she needs emotional connection.
When you are able to be with your child with empathy throughout the meltdown, he is able to release and integrate his big feelings, rather than getting the message that it’s wrong to feel them. The good news is that when you are present to your child’s meltdowns with empathy on a regular basis, they become fewer and less frequent.
A great way to reframe this is to view a meltdown as an opportunity to connect with your child and help him develop emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to control impulses, bounce back from stress, and cope with the ups and downs of life. Being with your child during strong emotional outbursts is also an opportunity to build a closer, connected relationship.
The 4 Step Plan
These guidelines are effective for all levels of intensity, even violent or aggressive tantrums. (Is there such a thing as a mild tantrum?) You may find that any intensity of crying, screaming, and anger can trigger you, especially when you are already stressed or tired.
Step 1: Help Yourself First
It’s hard to be with your child crying uncontrollably – or yelling and screaming or acting violently. This can trigger some intense feelings in you.
You need to get beyond the strong impulse to yell or do something you’ll regret and get back into your reasoning brain. You can’t help your child until you help yourself.
Take a few slow, deep breaths into your heart.
Take a moment to become aware of what you’re feeling, notice it in your body and name it. This will help it dissipate more easily. You can say to yourself, “wow, I’m feeling really angry (or anxious).”
Keep breathing into your heart and be gentle with yourself. Give yourself a huge amount of compassion. It’s hard to be in this intense energy that your child is spewing at you. Do whatever you can to bring yourself into your heart so you can help your child.
Perhaps you can say to yourself “this is not an emergency”. This might be what’s needed to bring you out of “fight or flight” and back into your thinking brain.
What other quick, simple thing can you do in the moment to bring yourself back to the present? Is there a physical movement or a phrase or mantra or something you can do to bring yourself into a calmer state to be with your child’s strong emotions? Learn beforehand what works for you.
Step 2: Shift Your View
You may need to drop your agenda, just for the moment. Realize that there is a greater opportunity to connect and be present to help your child. A great way to reframe the situation is to say to yourself “he’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time.” Or “she’s acting like a child because she is a child.”
Consider that what you’re thinking about your child in this moment may not be what your child is experiencing. Your child is angry, right? This is what’s happening on the surface, but what’s going on underneath? If your child is in an angry fit, it could be that something has triggered his need for protection, and he is in fight mode.
If you can shift your view to see the scared child inside, you can help him.
Or your child is crying hysterically over what seems to you to be not a big deal at all. Realize that whatever triggered her is important to her, and her emotional outburst is a stress response to something real or imagined.
This is not the time for punishment or consequences. In your child’s stressed state, he’s not weighing whether he should act like this and take the consequences. His thinking brain has shut down and he’s not even remembering what you said a minute ago.
Think about when you are really mad or stressed to your limit. Do you lash out without thinking of the consequences? How can we expect children to?
Later, after you’re both in a calm state, you can talk about what happened and gain more clarity on what’s really going on. It’s usually not what it looks like on the surface.
NOTE: The first 2 steps can happen simultaneously within 10-20 seconds – with some practice. However, many parents need some help with this, especially if you have some deeply rooted triggers that are difficult to move through on your own. See How to Prevent Meltdowns and Create Peace in Your Family.
Once you feel a bit calmer, you can focus on your child with more clarity and compassion.
Step 3: Focus on Your Child
Your child needs to know that it’s ok to have big feelings and feel safe that you can be there to help him through it. With some kids this means just sitting beside them and with others they might need a gentle touch on the shoulder or to be rocked. Some kids need to move their bodies while they process their emotions. You can learn what works best for your unique child.
A really great question to ask yourself is … “what would LOVE have me do here?” If you have dropped into your heart (Step 1), you will know.
The less you say the better. Telling her to “calm down” or “use your words” will not work. What your child needs is for you to just be with her and validate her feelings. She needs your compassion and empathy. Simply being with her while she cries can be all that’s needed.
You can validate the feeling by naming it with as few words as possible. This will help your child feel understood and make sense of her feelings.
“I hear you’re angry right now.”
“I can see that you’re sad”.
Your tone of voice and facial expression matters. Your child will pick up your emotions before your words. This is why step 1 is so important. Does your child feel safe with you?
When you calmly validate your child’s emotions, you’re teaching him how to self-regulate and manage his emotions. Of course, it’s always better for your child to name his feelings himself, but he might not be able to in the middle of a tantrum. It depends on his age or developmental readiness.
If your child is angry, he might need to move it out of his body by stomping his feet or hitting a pillow. He needs to feel safe to express with his emotions what he can’t say with his words. Do whatever is necessary to make the room safe for everyone. If your child is older and you don’t feel safe to be there if he’s violent, or if there are other people in the room that might get hurt, you need to put a distance between him and others while staying as calm and grounded as possible. The key to preventing further violent meltdowns is to respond with empathy and understanding while maintaining safety – and Step 4 is critical after he is calm. If your child has frequent violent meltdowns see How to Prevent Meltdowns and Create Peace in Your Family
Stay with empathy until you feel your child’s body relax, and he becomes quiet. This whole process can last only a minute or two. Kids can move through big feelings pretty quickly when they are allowed to experience them.
Step 4: Solve the Bigger Issue while Sticking to Limits
After you are both in a calm place, you can talk and explore the situation together. You might be amazed at how cooperative your child is now after being allowed to process his feelings.
Together you can explore solutions and come up with concrete actions. You can create a mindset of “we’re here in this together”. “I care about you and you care about me, and together we can figure this out”.
Help your child tell his story of what’s going on. Encourage him to come up with ideas for a solution to the problem. If he doesn’t come up with something agreeable to you, you could say, “Well next time you might ______ or we could _______. What do you think?”
It’s important to allow your child to be heard. This is not the same as allowing a behavior that is not acceptable. Stick to the limits with empathy and understanding.
For example, if the meltdown was triggered by having to stop playing the video game, it’s important that you stick to your limit. By being with him during his meltdown, you helped him process the emotions of having to give up something important to him. He knows you recognize how difficult it is for him to give this up. He doesn’t like the limit, but he’s been able to have his feelings about it. It would be confusing and counter-productive if you gave in and let him play the game longer.
Or if you don’t know what triggered the meltdown, this is a great opportunity to deeply listen. You might be surprised at what comes up. It might not even be about the video game after all.
These conversations are such a great opportunity for connection with your child. When you regularly do this 4-step process, your child learns the important skills of emotional intelligence and problem-solving. He can move through the emotional stress, knowing that you are on his side.
Read next . . .
Read all of the posts in this series . . .
Read Introduction What’s Causing Your Child’s Meltdowns
Read Post #1 Is Your Angry Child Purposefully Defiant or Emotionally Stressed?
Read Post #2 What Causes Stress in Children?
Read Post #3 Underlying Physical Imbalances May Cause Aggressive Meltdowns
Read Post #4 ADHD Meltdown: Get to the Root Cause of the Explosive Behavior
Read Post #5 4 Steps to Help Your Kids Through Their Worst Meltdowns
Read Post #6 How to Prevent the Meltdowns and Create Peace in Your Family