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Comforting Your Child During a Meltdown

One of the commonalities among all of the parent-child clients I work with is not knowing how to talk about difficult emotions. This often shows through aggressive or passive communication — in other words, the parent and child may shout at each other (aggressive) or completely shut down emotionally and not voice how they feel (passive). Both of these communication patterns steer away from healthy resolution.

Remember that the purpose of any type of communication is to express something. If we feel that we are not able to do so, whether it is due to our own limitations or the other person not listening, we can feel invalidated, rejected, and perhaps even isolated. So, when I am told about or witness a child having a “meltdown” (or what the parent refers to as a tantrum), I see three problematic things happen:

  1. The child cannot communicate how they feel
  2. The child does not feel heard
  3. The child grows increasingly frustrated because of #1 and #2, and nothing gets resolved

Parents will then share with me how they disciplined their child for this meltdown, but when I ask how they offered support, they pause, unsure of how to do that.

You can still offer support while disciplining your child. What that means is you can correct your child’s behavior in a way that is helping them, rather than punishing them.

For instance, imagine your 10-year-old son is shouting at you because you asked him to finish his homework. Your first reaction might be to shout back, or to threaten consequences (e.g., taking toys away, not allowing play-dates, earlier bedtime). This would probably lead to him continuing the shouting match, possibly getting so upset that he is crying or destroying things around the house, until you both find yourselves trying to one-up each other in a power struggle. How does that usually end up? You’re angry and upset with each other, things may be broken, and his homework still isn’t done.

So how do you avoid this in the first place?

Offer support first. Before you even attempt to correct the behavior, your child needs to remember that they trust you and you love them unconditionally. If you notice your child is upset or angry, provide ways to listen, rather than attempt to change the result.

  • “It seems like you are upset about something. Can you help me understand?”
  • “We’re on the same team. Let’s come up with a plan to work through this together.”
  • “Right now, I don’t love your behavior, but I do always love you.”
  • “Let’s take a 5 minute break to cool down, then we’ll chat about what’s upsetting you.”

When your child feels heard, they are more willing to listen. Offering support first provides the space for your child to process and cope with their negative emotions. Then, when they have calmed down, you can express the behaviors you would like them to change.

Replace undesirable behavior. Telling anyone to “stop” doing something is unlikely to be effective, mainly because we need something to do instead. In relation to the example above with your 10-year-old son, shouting at him to stop shouting at you not only does not identify what you do want him to do, but it also contradicts what you are saying. Model the behavior you wish to see.

  • “I’m going to take a minute to myself because I can feel that I’m getting angry.”
  • “I’m writing down how I feel so that I can organize what I’m thinking.”
  • “I’d like to hear what you’re saying, but I find it hard to do that if you are shouting. Let’s both talk calmly and take turns sharing our thoughts.”

Create a compromise. Involving your child in the parenting process seems counterintuitive, right? The benefit, though, is that the more they feel in control of their surroundings, the more likely they are to comply. Encourage them to think of target behaviors that you already have in mind.

  • “What do you think we should do when we have a disagreement?” (Possible answers: take a break, write down what we feel)
  • “How should we talk to each other when we feel upset or angry?” (Possible answers: calm volume, appropriate language, I-statements)
  • “What are some strategies you think would work for us to act as a team?” (Possible answers: find a way to accomplish the task together, break down the task into smaller pieces)

The trick to reducing these meltdowns is helping your child find healthy coping skills and communication skills to deal with the related emotions. Too many times I see parents attempting to overpower their child during a meltdown, trying to assert their “power” for lack of a better word. Offering support, replacing the behaviors with what you do want, and creating compromises together can remind your child that you are on the same team working towards the same goals. Redirect the attention from the negative towards the positives (e.g., reinforce their communication skills for expressing their thoughts calmly and appropriately).

Developing Crisis/Coping Kits is another helpful way of encouraging these coping skills. Check out this post to learn how to make some with your children.

Do you have other techniques that work for you? Let us know!

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