How to Respond to An Emotional Meltdown to Raise Strong Kids
It doesn’t matter whether the child is 4 or 14.
In the moments before a meltdown it’s the face scrunching that gives it away.
As body language goes it’s all out there, up front and very personal. A clear signal that your child is very sad and needs your help to cope with the rush of unbearable feelings.
But in the heat of the meltdown, emotions run high. For us parents too. So what’s the best way to cool down the situation without clamping down the emotions?
My four-year-old son became distraught last weekend because his big sister had a bag to carry to the park, and he didn’t.
His suffering was palpable. The emotions vivid on his face. His little body tense with distress.
It took a lot of self-control to suppress my own mounting discomfort at his obvious upset over something so trivial from a grown-up perspective. With effort I remained calm, held him close and loved him through the moment.
We found another bag.
He was fine.
And yet, he wasn’t.
The bag was incidental. I realised next day that the whole episode was in fact about his imminent return to school after the holidays. He was scared. He was feeling out of control. The bag bore the brunt of that emotion.
I felt grateful I hadn’t dismissed his outburst as ridiculous and petty. More by luck than judgement, I confess. And this got me thinking.
How we respond to a sad child and the emotional meltdowns that inevitably bubble up throughout the growing years lays the foundation for the development of their emotional intelligence. It will affect how they view and manage their feelings, and those of others, throughout their lives.
This is important stuff. We need to do it right.
But like most things parenting, there are no absolutes when it comes to emotions. With a little forethought though, we can be prepared for when they explode, and rock our world with that explosion.
After some initial bumbling, I found that this 5-point action plan helps me respond to my kids’ emotional meltdowns in a nurturing manner. I’m always looking for new ideas though – so please do share what you do in these situations in the comments.
Here we go –
#1 Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
You know how on a flight the safety announcement implores you to sort your own air supply before helping others? Well the same is true for effective parenting of a sad child in meltdown mode.
We parents are responsible for making sure our kids learn to manage their sea of emotions. And we can’t do that until we get our own house in order first.
Of course, when faced with an upset child this is often easier said than done.
With my husband away a few weeks ago I was under a lot of pressure. The children were displaced. I was running the home, two businesses, my kids.
I was running on empty.
Little son was noticing my increasingly fractious state. And doing his best to compete.
At 10pm on day six I was wearily dishing up my congealed dinner when my son cried out for the 7th time from his bed. He needed a wee. Again. Something inside me snapped.
My Mummy-energy was depleted. I had precious little left to give.
I stalked upstairs and cursorily moved my sobbing child from bed-to-bathroom-to-bed like an automaton.
He didn’t deserve that.
I spent the rest of the evening feeling awful, and reflecting on how I could/should have responded differently in that moment.
What my son was actually saying was this:
‘Mummy, I’m having a hard time settling tonight. I don’t know why. I just know I need you. Now. Please come and love me, and hug me, and remind me again that you are there.’
But in my own emotionally drained state, I didn’t hear it.
I dropped the ball that night. 4/10 Mom. Must try harder.
We’re not always calm ourselves. But that’s the point.
Simply recognising and acknowledging that fact can be enough to help us act in the appropriate way for our child next time.
And only then, Act.
When a similar situation arose the following night, I stopped myself on the bottom stair and counted to ten. The Mom-compassion was still there. It just took a little while to find.
Not a perfect 10, but close. Practice makes perfect.
Going back to our airline analogy, the airline crews KNOW they need to stay calm in a crisis. They KNOW that individual emotional responses can be tamed with tranquillity. So in case of emergencies, they fall back on their practiced drills to keep their heads level and then use their calm to help us control our feelings. And in doing so they keep us all safe.
This is Emotional Intelligence in action.
Psychologist David Caruso sums up perfectly the thinking behind this approach:
It is very important to understand that Emotional Intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head – it is the unique intersection of both.
When we understand this for ourselves, we can start to regulate our feelings. Not by corralling them into a confined space where they are suppressed. But by allowing ourselves space to view them objectively. BEFORE formulating a response.
So next time you sense a meltdown bubbling up, get yourself some air. Clear your head to create space where emotional order can be put into action.
#2 Embrace the Fifty Shades
No, not the Fifty Shades of Grey!
I’m talking about the fifty shades of emotions, here.
I strongly dislike the phrase ‘Negative Emotion’. It smacks of something bad, undesirable, to be avoided and suppressed. Why should this be so?
All emotions are valid.
All are real.
And all are experienced very intensely by our children.
Our role as parents is not to judge our child’s emotions. It is to help them acknowledge, embrace and understand those feelings for what they are. And then to give them the tools to manage and learn from them.
Child expert Janet Lansbury has a great phrase that sums this up – ‘Our perceptions of our children’s behavior will always dictate our responses’.
If we perceive our child’s emotional meltdown as an irritation, our response is likely to be exasperation. Or worse still, a scolding.
If we tell our weeping child to pull themselves together we are sending the message that such feelings are to be suppressed.
If we struggle to deal with their emotion at all, choosing to withdraw from our child, we create fear of abandonment.
These responses serve only to establish a distance between the child and their emotions. And damages the bond between parent and child.
Children love to please. They crave our acceptance. They need to know we love and value them no matter what emotion they are facing at the moment. And in this way we help open their door to self-acceptance too.
When my children are sad, mad, or frustrated I try hard to first accept and acknowledge what they are feeling. And then welcome every facet of that emotion into the world like it’s a precious gift.
Because loving only the happy stuff is akin to only loving half your child.
Committing to embrace every shade of your child’s emotion helps to set things straight.
#3 Remember that Emotions are like Onions…
It’s easy to label an emotion and take it at face value – ‘My child is SAD because Daddy is away. I will hug him and reassure him. He will feel better.’
But emotions are rarely that simple.
My boy was sad because his Daddy was away the other week. But the feelings he acted out around that went beyond simple sadness.
He had far bigger fish to fry.
Served up for our mutual appreciation were:
- A sense of abandonment – ‘Daddy has left me’
- Glimpses of an appreciation of mortality – ‘If Daddy is gone maybe he’s dead?’
- His fear of cause and effect – ‘Has Daddy gone because of something I did?’
For the parent it would be simple if these issues came up over a quiet chat and a nice cup of coffee.
My son is four. Too young for coffee. And with few conversational skills to speak of as yet.
But his emotions were still right there. Complex and multi-layered.
They were starting to fester. And sure enough, they came out:
- Abandonment – manifested as a need for constant reassurance. And a reluctance to go to bed – with one particularly memorable screaming fit.
- Mortality – endless questions about death, heaven, other places Daddy could be.
- Cause and Effect – there was a high degree of limit testing – throwing things (at his sister), hitting, biting and kicking (at me) – he knows these actions are unacceptable, but it was as if he lost all impulse control for a while.
Initially I gave little – and paid the price. The acting out intensified.
I didn’t feel particularly Intelligent at the time, but I sure had the Emotion part nailed.
Then my head intervened. I quickly realised that what he needed was a reinforcement of the normal boundaries that make him feel safe.
When your child is acting out take a moment to remind yourself that emotions are complex. Beneath the upper layers of Sad, Angry and Frustrated lie a whole bunch of other layers – each harder to peel, each bringing out fresh tears.
Just remembering that our kids’ emotional meltdown can be as complex as our own emotional outbursts will help us stay calm and help our kids deal with their emotions more effectively.
#4 Be Their Emotion Anchor
Feelings of sadness, anger and fear can be all consuming for a child.
That desperate openness on their faces in a meltdown moment is begging for limits and boundaries. For a firm anchor that keeps them from going adrift in a sea of overwhelming emotions.
‘Help me do this safely!’
It’s our role as parents to create a safe space in which it’s okay for our children to express their feelings. And, importantly, to guide them towards acceptable ways of doing so.
When your child is experiencing an emotional meltdown, try one of these responses:
- Be Present – remain in the room. Gently place your arm on their shoulder or hug them. Whatever they need. But be there. Don’t leave. You are their safety net.
- Be Stretchy – your child may resist your help, physically or verbally. That’s okay. When my son tells me to go away he doesn’t really mean it. He means ‘I need to see if you love me enough to stay.’
- Be Verbal – give your child the words to name their feelings, while simultaneously acknowledging them: “I can see you are UPSET right now. You are ANGRY because I said you can’t have the sweets”; “You are SAD because our doggy as died. It HURTS inside and makes you want to cry”; “It’s FRUSTRATING when you can’t have the pen to draw on the wall, I can see that makes you MAD”.
- Be Physical – we’ve all met children who are a tad boisterous. And those who don’t know when to stop. Simply because they’ve never been shown how. Meltdown moments are your opportunity to establish physical boundaries for your child. My daughter went through a phase of biting when she was cross. My son’s preferred abuse takes the form of a head butt. Neither is okay:
– Hold firmly.
– “This is not okay”.
– Repeat as necessary – this may take some time. Persevere. It works.
- Be Alternative – telling your child to stop physically is one thing. But they need to do something with that emotion. So provide alternatives for them. This leads us neatly into the final point of our action plan …
#5 Help them Build a Personalized Emotion Toolkit
Over the last seven years as a parent I’ve discovered five effective tools to give my children to help them manage their emotional world.
These tools travel alongside them in their emotion toolkit.
As they grow, they are slowly learning which one to pull out in any given situation.
Crucially, all place the child in control:
- Self-acknowledge – a simple, personal mantra that makes them feel safe – ‘I am safe, I am strong, I am loved.’ Choose words with your child that resonate for them.
- Make physical space for yourself – learn to find a place where you can express yourself safely – this has been particularly effective with my son. He has quite independently chosen the space behind the floor-to-ceiling curtain in our hall as his private spot. I know when he takes himself there he is dealing with something.
- Choose a private emotional outlet – punching your pillow, talking to teddy, running very fast, listening to music – my daughter has benefitted massively from the first of these. For a while when she was little her Meltdown MO was uncontrollable crying, that fell short of physical expression. I encouraged her to punch her pillow in those moments. It worked wonders to release the pent up energy that crying alone failed to let loose.
- Find some happy – to move on from strong emotions I teach my children to create a happy moment for themselves by doing something they love. It’s an effective way of re-establishing an emotional balance. For my daughter colouring works well; for my son it’s being creative with the Duplo. No rights or wrongs here, just what works for your child.
- Indulge the feelings – when emotions run deep it can help to prompt their release – a sad child may elect to repeatedly watch the scene in Bambi where the Mom dies; an angry child can find comfort in building and then destroying a wooden tower, and so on. Be mindful that your child may prefer certain actions over others – my girl loves to talk, watch and listen, my boy prefers to act. What stereotypes?!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Waiting for the meltdown to happen is leaving it too late. Here are some things you can do right now to prepare both yourself and your child for the next, inevitable, episode:
- Practice keeping things in perspective and avoid the panic – your child experiencing a strong emotion is not a medical emergency. Your calm will show them the way through whatever they are feeling.
- Limit actions, but not feelings – keep yourselves physically safe, but allow the emotions to flow.
- Remind yourself that your child’s capacity for emotion regulation is limited. Their outburst is usually a message, a signal, a cry for help – look beyond the here and now to what lies beneath.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the course of time, slowly help your child improve their capacity for emotional regulation.
- Take the time to actively notice and name emotions with your children every day. It will become second nature, and help you both when the emotion barometer rises.
- Make emotional reflection a natural part of your communications – when an emotional outburst has subsided be sure to revisit it when your child is ready. Replay, acknowledge, remind them of how they moved safely through it. Thank your child for their willingness to share their emotions with you.
- Be kind to yourself – you have emotions too. Let them out in your own space and time so they don’t interfere when your child needs you most.