Now that you have a basic understanding of what goes on in your child’s brain when they have a meltdown (please refer to my previous article https://therapybliss.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/understanding-your-childs-tantrums-and-meltdowns/ ) you can try a few strategies that may help them calm down. The first thing to understand is that every child is different. Children have unique personalities and temperaments and your responses to their misbehaviors or emotional meltdowns should take this into consideration. When you realize a strategy is not working, try a different approach. Here are a few suggestions:
- This might be the hardest thing to do (speaking from experience), but staying calm and centered while your child is having a meltdown is crucial. The reason being, losing patience, getting frustrated or yelling just makes the situation worse – for you and your child. In addition, you are giving the tantrum more power than it deserves. When children are upset, they lose their sense of coherence and are often uncomfortable with how they are feeling. At this point, they need someone to provide a safe environment and help them through the storm. Seeing you lose your cool is scary, unsettling and confusing to them, resulting in an escalation of the undesired behavior.
- Keep your voice calm and gentle yet confident when you talk to them. This not only gives them the reassurance that everything is going to be ok and that you will help them calm down but it also shows them that you will not give into their demands.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Instead of saying ‘Don’t be mad’ or ‘Don’t be sad’, or ‘Stop crying’ say ‘I understand why you are mad’ or ‘I know how you feel right now’ or ‘I’m sorry you feel so sad’. This teaches them that it is perfectly ok to experience different types of emotions and that there is no shame in being angry, sad, anxious or whatever emotion they might be going through.
- Sometimes simply seeing you respond in this way might be enough to start the process of de-escalation. When you see this happening try giving them a hug and let them feel your slow and deep breathing. Most of the time when children are upset their breathing becomes shallow. When they feel the calmness in your breathing, they unconsciously start to mirror your breathing. The act of simply bringing their breathing back to a normal pace has tremendous physiological effects.
- If the meltdown still continues after you have acknowledged their feelings and set your limits, let them know in a calm way that they can come to you whenever they are ready and that you will be there to hear them out. Now starts the part of letting the meltdown or tantrum runs its course. Go about doing your work ignoring the screaming and crying as best you can. But when they are ready for connection, pay full attention. If they need to be hugged, hug them. If they need to talk, hear them out. It always helps to sit down or kneel while doing this, so they do not have to look up at an ‘authority’ figure while feeling emotionally vulnerable. It also shows them that you take them seriously and care about what they have to say.
- If you are in the habit of giving time-outs, remember that explaining to your child why they are in time-out or asking them what they could do better next time, while they are in time-out may not be very helpful. Talking logic to a child when they are emotionally agitated is useless. Instead, take them to the time-out corner after announcing to them that they are on time-out and then stay quiet. Talk to them about the behavior after the time-out, when they are calm and able to see logic.
- When your child is in a better mood tell them that it is ok to feel such strong emotions, but that there are nicer ways to express them. For eg. It is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to throw things.
Parenting can be a tough job. And we make it tougher by putting unneeded pressure on ourselves to be the ‘perfect parent’. As I tell my 5 year old perfectionist, ‘perfection’ is simply an illusion. So the next time you are in the midst of a chaotic situation that involves your little one, take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that your child’s tantrums are just a cry for help and know that it is not a reflection of your parenting. Everyone goes through uncomfortable emotions and children just need to learn how to handle them in a healthy way.