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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Smyth, LCSW

Meltdown Mayhem: unreasonable or unreachable?

Updated: Sep 26, 2022


Let's talk about why this happens and what to do when your child isn’t calming down and seemingly won’t listen to reason. Below is a step by step guide to help you and your child through these moments.

Step One: Understand What’s Happening for Your Child.

Tantrums/Outbursts/Losing his/her Mind/Meltdowns (whatever you call them) are not logical processes. Rather they are a symptom of the emotional centers of the brain being overwhelmed. Which is why trying to reason or verbalize logic doesn’t work. A clear indicator this is happening is that what you observe your child is feeling and how they are behaving does not match the size of whatever problem triggered it. Being that these moments are driven by emotion it is key to remember the feeling is real for your child.

If nothing else, remember this key part: When the emotional center of the brain is overwhelmed, our ability to access the solution-focused center of the brain becomes nearly impossible. This is especially true for children, whose prefrontal cortex, that all-important problem-solving center of the brain, is far from fully developed.

During this overwhelming response to emotion (a tantrum), you can think of your child's ability to reason being “offline” and all those big emotions are now in control. If you can keep this in mind, you are more likely to be able to keep your cool as well, which I would venture to say is the most important thing you can do. Next most important is to connect with your child’s feelings, as unreasonable as they may seem, as a means of calming those emotions. We will get to how to do that in a moment, but first…

Step Two: Inspect Your Perspective; the foundation of responding and supporting your child through these moments.

Think about the message you want to give to your child during these episodes.

What’s your goal in the moment of a tantrum? Oftentimes we want to ‘turn it off’ right away, or fix it quickly, but given what we talked about in “Step 1,” this is usually not possible. Other times we want to be the ‘judge’ of what is an acceptable reason to have such strong emotions.

When we don’t feel such a big reaction or big emotion is justified, we may find ourselves more frustrated than empathetic. This introspection is key, without realizing parents can play a huge role in escalating and prolonging tantrums.

For example, think of the last time your child physically got hurt and had a large response of emotion because of the pain. How did you respond, were you empathetic and try to soothe him/her? Now think of a time they had a powerful emotional response because they had to do something they didn’t want to, like eat a certain food for breakfast or go/leave somewhere. Were you empathetic? How did you respond? Is it possible your response escalated the situation or soothed it?

The truth is, there is a need to connect in both moments, however we are less ready to do so when we feel emotions are not ‘justified.’

If perspectives can be shifted from accepting that your child needs support dealing with an overwhelming feeling, even if it doesn’t quite make sense, you will be more able to connect and improve your child’s confidence at being able to cope with these feelings.

Step Three: Acknowledge and Connect with the Feeling.

Acknowledging the feeling will help your child feel you understand what he/she is going through. This doesn’t mean you agree, it just means you show understanding. The tricky part is that this is best done while using very little language. When our emotional centers are overwhelmed, little language is getting in anyway. So what’s most important is that you model the calm you want to see in your child. We have mirror neurons that help us to mimic what we see in others, this works both ways which is part of why we get escalated emotionally during these times as well. As adults we need to take control of this opportunity and take deep, slow breaths. If your child is not being aggressive, you can take these breaths while rubbing his/her arms or back.

Often times a child just wants to feel heard and understood, reflecting their emotions in calm clear terms does just that for them.

Acknowledging the feelings may sound like, “It makes you feel angry/mad/sad/scared/frustrated when/because____. ” or “It’s so (feeling word) when (event/trigger)”.

Remind them that you are there. If they are not being aggressive, you can do this by just sitting next to them while modeling the slow breaths, or use a tool that has been established in therapy without verbal direction, put the tool near them or start doing it yourself. If they are not letting you do that, you can just periodically remind them in a soothing tone, “I’m here when you’re ready.” As their emotions start to calm, help them to move on. This can be done by giving them a hug and redirecting them to whatever is next. A firm hug that provides deep pressure can be soothing to the nervous system that is overwhelmed during these moments. You can let them know that you understand that was hard for them and are glad they’re feeling better.

Full disclosure: this process rarely goes perfectly, especially not at first. But by working on connecting with your child’s feelings, over time, you are consistently giving them the message that they can cope with these emotions, and that you are there to help them do so.

In a therapy session clients are helped to connect to the deeper feelings that are happening, this can only be done when the emotions are not in play and the reasoning center of the brain is back online and can be accessed by the child to talk it through logically.

Preemptive Solutions: Avoiding the need for these Steps.

The best situation to be in is to not be in a meltdown situation to begin with. Yup I said it, but the goal is by being preemptive these situations will be fewer and further between and when they do occur it’s for a shorter duration.

Oftentimes, what situations trigger a tantrum for your child can be predictable. Maybe it’s when there is a change in what they were expecting, maybe it’s when there is a rushed routine to get out of the house. (P.S. There is always a trigger, figuring it out takes keen observation and reflecting on prior situations)

Preemptive Solutions can look like reviewing changes in a routine, or what to expect from the day. It’s giving them warnings of a transition that will happen. It can be helpful to go through these situations with your child beforehand, reminding them of the problem solving skills they can use. Perhaps it means giving extra time to morning routines on Mondays if that’s a day coming off the weekend is harder or picking out clothing the night before. Maybe you pull your child aside and prepare them for the frustrations that may emerge and check in with them periodically. Checking in with them during parts of the day that are more difficult could sound like, “hey how's it going? you should be brushing your teeth by now, do you need help with anything?”

Talking through a plan can help your child feel more empowered if a situation does emerge, and makes it more likely they are able to employ a problem-solving strategy before those big emotions take over.

A side note: Wait until you are well on the other side of an episode before discussing any kind of behavior that occurred that you feel was unacceptable. Share your concern about this behavior in an “I statement”. Starting a sentence with “you” will put your child back in a mode of defense and may retrigger a meltdown.

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