I’m pretty sure you’ve been there.
You know, the situation where your child asks you to buy something for them in the shop, which for whatever reason you don’t want to buy, and when you say “NO” in response, your child hits the roof and beyond.
Or when you’ve decided to put sauce on your child’s pasta dinner and they are adamant the sauce should be ON.THE.SIDE!!!
Or when you and your child just have different agendas - you need to leave the fun activity you’re doing to get on with the day’s schedule and your child is having too much fun and can’t get on side.
I think most parents will have had at least one of these experiences at some time or another with at least one of their children. Or else some other cause of an almighty meltdown or uncontrollable tantrum.
And often, despite us being well-intentioned and loving parents, in the moment we often unknowingly fuel our kids’ meltdown in the way that we approach the situation.
We say things like:
It’s not a big deal
We can get it another time
You don’t need another toy
We can come back another time
You’ve spent hours here already
I told you it’s time to leave - I have to get home
I’ve already given you a 5 minute warning
I’ve already plated up the food
What’s the big deal? Just eat it
I thought you love sauce
The food all ends up in the same place - what does it matter if it’s mixed together?
Why do you always have to make such a fuss
Why can’t you just…
I’ve already said no
Any of these sound familiar?
Before we go into why these types of responses don’t work, we need to talk a little bit about our brains first.
I’m not going to go into all the intricate details here - what’s important to know is that in the simplest terms, we can split our brain into two parts: the emotional brain and the logical brain.
The emotional brain (lower brain), is more primitive and is what is most developed when our children are born and young. The logical brain (higher brain - cortex) is what controls rational thought, judgment, inhibition, etc. and is very immature in children and takes until a person’s mid-20’s to fully develop.
When our child has a meltdown or tantrum, generally what happens is that the emotional brain hijacks the logical brain such that your child cannot access their logical brain at all. In that moment, their whole body is being controlled by their primitive emotional brain and they are in a heightened emotional state. And depending on the age and maturity of your child, they may or may not be aware of what emotions are fuelling their meltdown.
This is important to know because the ONLY way to help our child calm down and emerge from their meltdown or tantrum is to connect with their emotional brain.
So how do you connect with your child’s emotional brain?
You do this by helping them label and understand their emotions.
By expressing empathy and using words to describe how they might be feeling and what thoughts might be behind those feelings.
For example, you could say “I can see you are SO mad right now! You really wanted that toy and it makes you SO angry that I said you can’t have it.”
In this case, assuming your child is pretty worked up, you probably also want to match their energy level so that they FEEL you really do get how they are feeling and are not just saying empty words.
Avoid using logic and resist the temptation to TEACH!
This is NOT the time to teach them a lesson about how they are so ungrateful and have too many things, why they should be thankful for the food on their plate, how you have slaved over dinner, or that they can’t always have their way.
RESIST THE TEMPTATION. Do not teach. It is not the time for that.
Try to keep your words and phrases simple. Remember, you are connecting with their more primitive, emotional brain so you want to be sure they can access and “hear” the words you are saying. If you use complex words or phrases, they will likely tune out and you will not succeed in your connection attempts.
So, when you have used empathy and described your child’s feelings to them, what do you do next if they are still in meltdown mode?
Stay calm and repeat.
But, I hear you thinking, it’s SO HARD to stay calm when my kid is in total meltdown mode.
And I hear you.
When my child is in meltdown mode, I feel my blood pressure rising, my heartbeat getting faster, my breath getting faster and more shallow, my anxiety level increasing…. It’s like being under attack.
And that’s exactly how our brain instinctively responds. When this happens, know that your own primitive brain is trying to hijack your logical brain and you need to redirect your response.
Do whatever it takes to calm your emotional response and not lose it yourself. You need to maintain your self-control and composure. This might involve taking a few deep breaths, saying a mantra to yourself, doing some visualisation or even taking a moment away from your child to regain your composure.
Remind yourself that you are the mature adult in this situation, this is not a life or death situation and that your child needs you to stay calm and more importantly, NEEDS YOUR HELP.
When you are self-regulated (i.e. calm and in control of your reaction), then your child’s brain senses “safety” from your presence and can begin to replicate that calmness. When your breath is slow and deep, your child’s body will begin to take those cues and their breath will begin to slow down and become deeper - helping them to calm down.
After a little pause, let your child know again that you understand how they are feeling and see how tough this is for them. Avoid any blame, shame and/or criticism. You are just helping them understand their emotions and letting them know that you get it.
Give them a little bit of time to process what you’ve said, staying with or next to them the whole time.
If they will allow it, give them some physical contact. Some children will be very sensitive to touch in meltdown mode and so will only allow you to stay next to them. Others might allow a hand on their arm, whilst others will allow you to hold them. Do what feels right and take cues from your child on what they can tolerate.
When your child has calmed down (and this may take some time depending on your child, their emotional maturity and the intensity of their reaction), the balance between their emotional and logical brains is close to restored and you can then start to offer a solution to the issue that provoked the meltdown.
This might sound like:
Shall I take a picture of the toy and add it to your wishlist?
Would you like another plate so you can re-arrange your food the way you’d like?
When we get home shall we plan another time to come back here?
You want to help your child see a way forward and move forward with you. They may still be feeling some emotions and may still be upset - that’s okay. They are learning how to cope with and manage them.
Disappointment, frustration, annoyance, anger - all of these are natural and normal emotions that your child will experience at some point.
Your role as their parent is to help them understand that the emotions are normal, and how to identify them and then self-regulate. Some emotions don’t disappear as quickly as others. It’s important to accept how your child is feeling so that you do not inadvertently make them feel guilty, bad or shameful for feeling that way.
I’ll bet that your child already knows a lot of right from wrongs and a lot about your family values. When your child has a meltdown, it isn’t because they don’t know all that stuff you’ve been trying to teach them about life and the universe! It’s just because they are still a child, live mostly in the moment, have strong desires and in that moment, their emotional brain has taken over.
If you feel you need to “teach” - then by all means, at a later time revisit the situation with your child and have a calm discussion about it. You can let them know if you felt their behaviour was inappropriate and discuss other ways they might behave if the same situation were to happen again. You could even role-play the situation so that your child has an example in their memory of another way to react in that situation - this will help their brain access that behaviour more easily in the future.
Just be sure to not “teach” in the moment. Your child’s logical brain in the moment is dormant and won’t be receptive to anything you say so you’ll be saying words for the sake of it with the result being your child will probably stay in a heightened emotional state and you will begin to join them based on the lack of response to your teachings! It’s a lose-lose situation so best to avoid it in the first place if you can!
Finally, although it’s really tricky to do in the moment, try to remember that this is not a personal attack on you.
Your child’s meltdown is NOT a reflection on you as a parent.
It does not mean you are a bad parent or that you have done something wrong. NOT. AT. ALL.
Throw that wave of guilt and fear to the side and FOCUS ON YOUR CHILD.
They need you to focus on them and silence your own ego.
This is NOT about YOU.
If you can keep that in mind and truly feel that in your heart, you will find that calm parent within you and be in the best position to support your child the way you intend to.
Reader Bonus: Grab a copy of the "5 Steps to Emotion Coaching" reminder sheet so that you can easily refer to it the next time your child has a meltdown! See below.
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