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.
If you are a parent I am sure you have experienced your child’s inevitable tantrums, meltdowns, mystifying shifts in mood, totally embarrassing and dramatic public displays of emotions at the most inappropriate of situations. You do your best to calm your child, trying to keep your sanity intact at the same time. But have you ever wondered what might be going on physiologically inside your child’s brain that causes such strong reactions? Understanding what is happening in your child’s brain when they are throwing tantrums, having meltdowns or simply too upset to hear a word you are saying, may shed some light into what they are going through at such moments. Instead of emotionally reacting to the child’s meltdown, you may be able to see their situation with empathy and react in a more informed manner. So here is a very basic Brain 101 for you.
In simple language, the front part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex (the ‘smart’ part of our brain) which takes care of decision making, planning, reasoning, moderating social and other complex cognitive behaviors. This part of the brain in children is still a work-in-progress and gradually gets fine-tuned as they grow older. The amygdala (the ‘alarm’ part of the brain) located in the limbic system is located towards the lower back part of the brain and is responsible for emotions, emotional response, and motivation. This primitive part of the brain gets activated (within milliseconds) when our safety is threatened and primes our body for fight or flight, which is crucial for our survival. For eg., when we hear our bedroom window breaking in the middle of a quiet night our amygdala prepares our body in an instant for fight or flight. At such times, the alarm part of our brain acts much quicker and is more powerful than our prefrontal or smart part of the brain. There is no time to think logically – our body simply instinctively responds to the danger. Now, the amygdala gets activated not only when we face danger but also when we encounter things that greatly upset us. So when your child gets uncontrollably upset at not being able to eat that candy right before bed time, her amygdala has taken control and caused an instinctual, automatic emotional response that does not see logic. It has overpowered the prefrontal cortex and at this point no amount of logical explaining is going to help the child calm down….not at least until the emotional arousal caused by the amygdala simmers down.
What can you do to help with this simmering down? Stay tuned for my next article on ways to help with this process.
Talking to children about their day, spending quality time with them, reading to them etc are great ways to connect with your child and show them you care. Equally important is to show them how to be mindful – to be in the present moment and enjoy it, without worrying about what happened in school yesterday, anxious about the test tomorrow or sulking over why they did not get that extra cookie. Children have an innate quality to simply be present in the moment. Here are some ways to hone it.
- Take a walk with your child and talk about what you see. Talk about the changing colors of the leaves or the smell of the flowers. Pick up a leaf and examine the texture, the color, the sound it makes when it rustles in the wind. Hold the pine cones lying on the ground and notice how perfect each one is. Become curious and excited about nature and see how your child forgets about the worries in their little head and embraces the wonders around them.
- Choose a mindful activity that your child will be able to relate to and have fun doing it. The spider-man mindfulness activity is great for children. Link: http://kidsrelaxation.com/uncategorized/spider-man-practicing-mindfulness-and-increasing-focus/
- Set aside some time every day to give your undistracted attention to your child and immerse yourself in their play, letting them set the terms and rules of play. The key term to note here is ‘undistracted attention’.
- Mindfulness involves paying attention to breathing – the breath is used as the object of concentration. This simple discipline of bringing awareness to breathing helps our mind focus on the present moment. A fun way to teach children to bring their attention to their breath is by having them lie down and placing their favorite stuffed toy on their belly. Have them watch the toy go up and down as they breathe in and out.
- Introduce the habit of taking three mindful breaths (bringing attention to breathing in and breathing out – noticing how cold or warm the air feels, how the belly goes in and out) at least three times a day. Teach them they can always use this as a tool anytime they feel emotionally unsettled.
Studies have shown that doing these simple and fun mindfulness activities on a regular basis changes the structure of the brain improving the quality of thought and feeling. Children who practice mindfulness on a regular basis show increased patience and focus, higher tolerance for frustration, ability to stay calm amidst emotionally challenging situations, improved cognitive and performance skills and decreased worry and anxiety.