Strong-willed kids have a lot of frustrating behaviors. For me though, meltdowns are one of the most challenging behaviors. I want to cry in a corner because my child’s totally out of control with emotions. I am usually left with a lot of questions; “What do I need to do to help my child manage their emotions better?”, “What can I do to weather the storm of their emotions in a healthier way?”, and “What’s even going on? Why are they doing this?”
So we’re here with marriage and family therapist, Jeff Tesch to talk about all things meltdown.
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Jeff Tesch, LMFT
What causes a meltdown? What’s going on in the child’s brain during meltdown?
Meltdowns are really a flood of emotions. So many emotions that your brain starts to be overstimulated and stops thinking rationally. But where do all those emotions come from?
All emotions are driven by thoughts. Emotions are really a response to what you’re thinking.
For example: when you are afraid of something, you don’t feel fear first. Rather, you think a fearful thought THEN you feel fear.
What happens next? After you have a thought, followed by an emotion, the emotion builds unless you change your thinking. As the emotions build, some unfortunate things happen in your brain:
- Your brain shifts into the fight or flight response/a panic response.
- Your ability to think clearly and rationally diminishes.
- You start to believe things that aren’t accurate
- You become difficult to reason with
- You have to calm down before you can think rationally again
So when our child is in the middle of a meltdown, you can assume that their emotions have flooded the brain. Their brain isn’t able to rationalize or reason or do any problem solving. They truly are just in the fight or flight part of their brain that doesn’t do any of that higher functioning.
That is a significant thing to remember. In the middle of a meltdown is NOT the time to talk, explain, or to act different. In fact, engaging with a child who is melting down usually leads to further escalation.
What can you do to help prevent a meltdown?
Think about the Hulk. As you might know, he has some warning signs that he’s going to turn into the Big Green Guy. He goes through a process where he’s fighting against his emotions. If he’s not successful he turns into the green guy and he’s gone.
Here’s some tips for preventing a meltdown:
- Be aware of what triggers a meltdown in your child. What signs do they give you that they are headed into a meltdown? The earlier you can intervene, the better.
- Distract their thinking. Since emotions are a result of thoughts, try changing what they’re thinking about. If you see a meltdown coming on you could start asking them questions about something completely unrelated, start playing a game, etc.
- Use “Emotional Coaching” A lot of times, meltdowns occur when a child isn’t feeling understood, heard, or like their feelings are valid. Using emotional coaching can help your child feel like somebody understands them.Researches conducted a study where they wired kids up and monitored them throughout their day. The researchers wanted to learn about physiological response to everyday struggles. The researchers taught parents to simply notice their child’s feelings and to label their child’s feelings out loud. Example: “You look upset” or “You are frustrated”. The research showed that if parents made that kind of a statement, their kids were much less likely to begin to escalate emotionally. Most humans begin to feel calmer when they feel validated and understood.So what is emotional coaching?Emotional coaching was developed by researcher John Gottman. You can read about it more in his book Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child. Here are the basic principles taught in the book.
- Emotions are part of being human. There is nothing wrong with them. It’s what we choose to do with them that can cause a problem.
- Our children struggle with their emotions and that is OK. In fact, it’s a good thing. Their struggles provide us with an opportunity to teach them and to connect with them.
- One of the most important jobs a parent has is helping their child become aware of emotions and learn how to handle them in a healthy way.
- Parents do that by:
- Becoming very aware of their child’s emotions
- Labeling their child’s emotions out loud using a statement that starts with the word “You”
- Then help the child understand that that feeling is appropriate and normal.
- Teach them to look for things to do besides letting the emotion escalate.Here’s some examples:
“You really wish you could play with your friends. I wonder if you’d like to read a book or get some legos out?”
“You are really disappointed that it’s time for bed. Would you like to brush your teeth first or put your pajamas on first?”
- Create firm boundaries around what kind of behavior is not OK, even when they are upsetExample: People and things are not for hurting, even when you’re mad., some expectations.You may need remind them of the boundaries and expectations around managing emotions. You will need to give an appropriate consequence when a rule is broken.
Just remember: Do not discipline emotion, discipline inappropriate behavior.
(For older children) In a calm time, create a “calm down” plan with your child. To help you create a plan, have them answer the following questions:
- What does it feel like to be overwhelmed?
- How can you tell when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed?
- What can you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
- What things do you enjoy that you might want to do when you need to calm down?
- How can you use this information to create a calm down plan?
- What will be your plan when you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotions?
Once your child has created a plan, you might need you to prompt them when they are starting to get upset. You could say something like, “Oh, it looks like you’re feeling big feelings. Remember your plan. Do you need help with your plan?”
This process teaches them how to manage their emotions early on. What an important life skill to develop!
A lot of times I think meltdowns occur when a person or a child isn’t feeling understood or isn’t feeling heard and even feeling criticized or uh, their experiences isn’t appropriate. Valid. Invalid. Yeah. And so using that emotional coaching can help them feel like they’re somebody is tuned into them and there’s understanding there and we even have some good research that that indicates that if we, if we validate early on, it’s less likely that our kids will have a strong physiological and emotional response. They actually wired kids up and monitoring them throughout their day to learn about physiological response and they coach parents to just put a word to the feeling and they found in moments where there was an emotion. If parents simply made that validating statement, kids were much less likely to begin to escalate and fall apart emotionally.
What should you do DURING a meltdown?
Even with the best tools, you can’t prevent ALL meltdowns. So what should you do when your child has turned into the Hulk?
First, realize that the emotions has become so intense that your child’s brain is not rational anymore. This is not the time to talk, lecture, or prompt your child to use their “calm down” plan. It’s time to just make sure that they’re safe and the things around them are safe. Give them space and time to work through their emotion.
This is really hard because you don’t feel in control as a parent. You don’t want your kids to feel that level of emotion. You know it’s not fun because you’ve been there.
Remember that you do need to have rules about what kind of behaviors are not allowed and you need to enforce those rules. But if the child is not breaking any of the rules, you can let them meltdown knowing that they will become calm again later.
If the child’s emotions are disrupting the entire family, it is appropriate to ask them to go to their room.
You could say something like this:
“You are upset and that’s OK. You need to go to your room until you’ve cooled off.”
**Be aware that you’re saying anything could cause the child to escalate even more.**
I can see that. I’ve definitely felt that way when I’ve been overwhelmed by emotion. If you say anything to me like Dunkin, you know, so I could see how just cutting off our tendency to want to talk there and do a lot there and just, you know, having some firm rules about what is acceptable and what’s not and like you said, coming up with those in a time that is calm. We have on our fridge right now. Things that are OK when we’re full of emotion and things that are not OK and we have had to prompt a little bit at first and now we don’t have to prompt so much anymore. So I like all that. And just releasing yourself as a parent from being responsible for your child’s emotion in that moment and just knowing that time will help.
What can I do to not have my child’s meltdown ruin my day?
This is so much easier said then done, but here are the top tips:
1. Realize that learning to manage emotions is a life-long process. Even adults are still learning how to be calm and soothe themselves when emotions get big. So it might be helpful to say to yourself, “This is tough, but my child will learn. This will take time and this is another opportunity to grow.”
2. Learn that your emotional experiences are separate and independent from you child’s emotional experience. Just because your child is upset, doesn’t mean that you have to be upset as well. If you spend the rest of your life only being as happy as your least happy child, you could be miserable for a long time.
3. Pay attention to your own thoughts during a meltdown. Are your thoughts becoming more negative? Are those thoughts causing you to have negative emotions? Could you distract your thinking? What activities do you enjoy that could help you weather the storm of a meltdown?
Really, everything we just taught about helping our kids manage their emotions can be practiced by you DURING their meltdowns.
4. If you need a break from the crying, put in some ear plugs or slip into another room. Something that can reinforce meltdowns in our kids is if we do get pulled in emotionally. As human beings, when we’re out of control, we want to drag others into that emotion as well. If your child can pull you in emotionally, it can teach them to use meltdowns again. So it’s just key to stay calm and yeah, even remove yourself from the situation if needed.
What should I do after my child has a meltdown?
I think it’s a great idea to process once they’ve calmed down. Talk together to find out what you can learn from the meltdown. Take some time to problem solve. Some kids are resistant to it, but I think it’s often a time that kids are a little more open. They might not have enjoyed their meltdown and may want something different for themselves.
Approach them with a positive tone rather than a disciplinary tone.
You may say something like:
“Wow, that was hard. It was hard for you. It was hard for me. What can we learn from that meltdown? What can we try next time you’re in that situation? Remember the things that we can do when we’re upset?”
If they demonstrated some self-control during their meltdown, PRAISE THEM!
“Wow! I saw you overwhelmed and you went right to your room! I’m really proud of you for using the steps that we’ve talked about!”
Bonus Tip: Check in with your child regularly. Give them lots of opportunities to express their emotions BEFORE they get out of control
Many adults need opportunities to vent. Venting can help your child as well. To become a safe place for your child to vent, follow these steps:
1. Ask your child some probing questions. Here are just a few examples:
- On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you?
- How are things going with friends? What is going well, what isn’t going so well?
- On a scale of 1-10, how much do you like yourself?
- Let your child talk as much as they need.
- ZIP YOUR LIPS! Keep listening and resist the urge to parent in these moments. If you start telling your child how they should feel or what they should do, THEY WILL STOP TALKING! However, if you just listen, using a “You” statement here and there, THEY ARE MORE LIKELY TO TALK! If they talk, they have an opportunity to release a lot of emotions they may have been holding onto.If you feel there is something they need to learn to improve their happiness, find a time to teach them LATER. Take note of what you’d like to teach them and bring it up at dinner a few weeks later or on a car ride. Just avoid bringing it up when they are sharing with you.
Your primary role when your child is sharing their emotions with you is to LISTEN and to VALIDATE. Listening and validating may be all it takes to help your child deal with their emotions.
What are some red flags that my child’s meltdowns are severe enough that I should seek professional help?
Red Flag #1: High Frequency
How often are meltdowns happening? Most kids, toddlers up to pre-teens, have an emotional breakdown once or twice a week. That would be the normal range. If you’re seeing meltdowns daily or multiple times a day, that’s definitely more of a concern.
Red Flag #2: High Intensity
How extreme are the meltdowns? Is your child getting violent or are they doing self-harm? If you child is hurting others or being destructive, that’s obviously a more intense response than just stomping their feet. So the more extreme it’s getting, the more of a concern it is.
Red Flag #3: Long Duration
I’ve had families come in and they’re just overwhelmed with fits. I always ask how long the fits are lasting. If they tell me 10 or 15 minutes, I feel very different than if it was for hours at a time.
If a child has a meltdown that is lasting 30 minutes to an hour or beyond, that’s not healthy for their brain. It’s also so much harder for the parent to continue to stay emotionally calm.
Consider keeping track of the frequency, intensity, and duration of your child’s meltdown’s:
It can be helpful to track this behavior. Monitor how often your child is melting down, how long the meltdowns are lasting, and the intensity of the meltdown. Continue tracking when you start to implement tools to help your child avoid/better handle meltdowns. You’ll want to see if there’s gradual improvement or if it’s getting worse. If you that the meltdowns are increasing in frequency or intensity, that would be a good time to have some consultation with a professional. Take the tracking information with you to the appointment.
However, if you see even a 10% decrease in frequency or intensity of meltdowns with a strong-willed child, that means that you are on the right track. Meltdowns are a more tenacious behavior that’s going to take time and consistency in order to see improvement. Any progress is going to be a win.
Remember: Learning to identify emotions, express them, and to take care of them is a life-long process. Think of yourselves as an adult. How often do you overact or feel overwhelmed by emotion? It takes us time even as adults. Be patient with the process.