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 they’re yelling hateful words or 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.
When you are emotionally stressed, you don’t have complete access to your rational thinking brain. You’re in fight or flight stress so it’s difficult to think clearly. If you’re in “fight” mode, you’ll want to yell or threat or punish. If you’re in “flight” mode, you’ll want to get away from your child – either by putting them in a time out or take your own time out.
Here’s what is important to understand:
When your kids are in the midst of a meltdown, they need your help. They’re in a stress response and they need you to help them process the big scary feelings. They don’t have the capacity to think through or even hear what you’re saying. Trying to reason with them, especially yelling or punishing, will make it worse. Isolating them in a time out is also counterproductive since it gives them the message that it’s wrong to have these feelings that they have no control over. They need you to be with them – they need emotional connection.
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.
Think of the meltdown as an opportunity to connect with your child and build a closer relationship. This helps them develop emotional intelligence – the ability to control impulses, manage feelings, bounce back from stress, and cope with the ups and downs of life.
The 3 Step Plan
This plan is effective for all levels of intensity, even 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.
- Notice what you are feeling. You can say to yourself, “wow, I’m feeling really angry (or anxious).”
- Make a conscious choice to not act while you’re triggered. Your responsibility is to calm yourself.
- 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.
- If necessary, do a physical movement to bring yourself back to present. Blow your breath out, shake your hands out, do some tapping (EFT), whatever it takes to calm your body.
- Calm yourself with a phrase or mantra that helps you to reframe what’s happening. Perhaps you can say to yourself “this is not an emergency” or “he’s acting like a child because he is a child” or “she’s not giving me a hard time; she’s having a hard time”. Whatever works for you. This can bring you out of “fight or flight” and back into your thinking brain.
Shift your view to see the scared child inside.
Drop your agenda (just for now) and realize that in this moment your child needs your help. They are unable to manage these big feelings on their own.
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.
Maybe 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?
NOTE: This first step can happen within 10-20 seconds – with some practice. However, many parents need some help with this, especially if you find it difficult to move through your own feelings.
Once you feel a bit calmer, you can focus on your child with more clarity and compassion.
Step 2: 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. When you calmly validate your child’s emotions, you’re teaching him how to self-regulate and manage his emotions.
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 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. 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?
If your child is angry, he might need to move it out of his body. Know beforehand what is the safest way for him and help him do that. 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.
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 3: 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. You can gain more clarity on what’s really going on. It’s usually not what it looks like on the surface.
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?”
Together you can explore solutions. You can create a mindset of “we’re in this together”. “I care about you and you care about me, and together we can figure this out”.
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.
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.
Read about How to Actively Listen to Your Child
These conversations are such a great opportunity for connection with your child. When you regularly do this 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.
Learn What to Do to Resolve Your Child’s Troubling Behavior
Understand the cause of the behavior
Know what to do for yourself in those really stressful parenting moments
Know what to do for your child to bring them back to calm and cooperation
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