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How to respond when your child is having a meltdown

All children (and adults) go through tough times in their lives. Our job as parents is to help our children navigate the very complicated maze life can be. When children have meltdowns and big emotions overwhelm them, they are signalling to us that they need help. Every behaviour is a form of communication. When children have a meltdown, they are telling us they need help. They might need help with being taught how to handle anger when their sibling took away a toy, how to handle frustration when they cannot have a snack just before dinner or they might need help with feeling anxious about too many new people or being in a noisy place. All meltdowns are opportunities for parents to teach children how to respond and how to handle distressing situations.

It is important to mention that when children are in a state of a meltdown, their mammalian brain (which is a home of feelings and reactions such as freeze-flight-fight) has taken over and the thinking part of our brain (that is responsible for planning, logical thinking, regulating behaviour and emotions and language skills) is switched off. Children will therefore not respond to parents reasoning with them, they will not hear the logical explanations and justifications. Children’s emotional part of the brain needs to be soothed and calmed first, before they become responsive.

When children are in a meltdown, they are in a reactive state and the activated lower part of the brain prevents them from any learning being done at this stage. Parents will not be able to have conversations with their children about how inappropriate their behaviour is or how disrespectful they are towards others. These conversations and discussions can be held minutes or hours after the meltdown.

When in a meltdown, children need our full attention and our empathy the most. When they are at their worst, they need us the most. Empathising with our child’s emotions does not mean we permit or excuse his/her unacceptable behaviour. Discussions about behaviour can be held, however, when child is receptive and will be able to listen to our suggestions.

Simple formula or response to a child having a meltdown could be:

  • Use body language and tone of voice that shows you care and you are there to help, however, try not to get overwhelmed by their strong feelings. E.g. come close to them, go down on your knees if speaking with little children and look them in the eyes, give them a cuddle or touch their shoulder.

  • Label and validate his/her feelings: “I see you are very angry.”

  • Reflect on what he/she says and what happened: “You are very angry because your sister took your toys.”

  • Describe behaviour and problem solve. Be very short: “We don’t hit other people. Hitting hurts. Next time you are angry with your sister, you can come and tell me.”

  • Distract, don’t dwell on what happened and re-connect: “I can see the puzzle we were looking for in the morning, would you like to do it?” 

When we empathize with our child, see the situation from their perspective, ask them to tell us what happened, they start to become more receptive and less caught up in their big emotions. By asking them what happened or putting our words in the mix, we are again engaging the thinking part of the brain that can help children regulate their feelings and behaviour.

Only when the meltdown is over and child is back to his usual self, parents can focus on planning what to do next time in a similar situation, brainstorm together with the child ideas what to do when e.g. “We are in the shops and I cannot buy you a toy.”

When dealing with your child's difficult behaviour, you can also try to empower yourself by creating a 'toolbox' with resources. Some of the helpful resources might be the following:

  • Think of a time you as a parent responded well to your child's triggering behaviour and try to think about all the details of that situation. Say to yourself: "I can do it".

  • When dealing with your child's meltdown, imagine having a supportive person or role model guiding your behaviour. You could even visualise having these people standing next you and providing you with support and gentle guidance.

  • You could identify a symbol/image/talisman that will help you act and respond according to your values and beliefs.

  • Imagine and practise your responses in your mind's eye and think through your responses. Why not to think of our child's meltdowns as opportunities to learn something more about our child but also about ourselves.

Child’s behaviour is a form of communication and it tells parents what skills need to be taught and built. Parents and children are in it together and if we all see ourselves as co-problem solvers and as people teaching each other skills, we will have a good ride together. Parenting is about practice, not perfection. By making a mistake from time to time, we are teaching our children that no-one is perfect and we also de-sensitise them to the chaotic and sometimes unfair world we all live in.

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