As a child psychologist and father of three strong-willed girls, I have faced my share of meltdowns: from screaming to stomping, name calling to the silent treatment. One of the most common issues parents bring to my attention is that their child gets “so upset, so suddenly.” One thing I have learned as a therapist and parent is that each child is unique, with his or her own temperament and ability to manage feelings.

Some meltdowns are the result of a child feeling genuinely sad; others are due to frustration over not getting one’s way. As parents, we hate to see our children upset. Sometimes, in our effort to help them feel better, we may inadvertently reinforce the meltdowns we are trying to prevent.

What parent has not caved to the stressful meltdown at the store for “just this one toy?” I know I have. Giving into this type of meltdown can teach your child that a meltdown is the way to get what you want. In this case, ignoring the meltdown teaches your child to tolerate frustration and to understand that tantrums are not the way to get your needs met.

On the other hand, when your older child sibling destroys his 4-year-old sister’s favorite drawing, it is completely understandable that she goes into meltdown mode.

So how do we know when to help our child through an emotional hardship and when to ignore the meltdown and hang tough?

My daughters have taught me the most about the differences in temperament and emotional regulation. My eldest, Sana, 8, can have a meltdown over the simplest situation, like brushing her teeth or not being the first on the iPad. When she gets upset, her feelings overwhelm her and it takes time for her to calm down. She also is the sensitive one who tends to her baby sister and always makes the kindest cards for others. Her younger sister Sinead, on the other hand, is more even-tempered. She, too, gets upset when things don’t go her way, but her meltdowns are shorter and less intense, and she can accept situations more easily. As a parent, I have to gauge how I respond to each differently. For Sana, I have to help her through her “emotional dysregulation” without caving into to her request for the sake of “preventing another meltdown.”

Every child is different, and learning what works with each is the never-ending challenge of being a parent. One distinction I make and coach parents about is distinguishing between what your child can’t do and won’t do. Insisting your children do something beyond their capacity will only lead to anger and frustration. However, adapting your world to meet a child’s demands also creates another set of problems. Some kids may need more help with transitions; others may need to learn that there are consequences for certain behaviors, rewards for others. This is a simple yet challenging question to continuously ask yourself, because it will affect how you respond most effectively and sensitively.

Below are some of the simple strategies that I have found helpful in managing meltdowns.

Tips to Managing Meltdowns

  1. Breathe: When a meltdown is coming, it is important to calm the body—for yourself and your child. Research shows that deep breathing can calm the body’s fight/flight response. Help your child to take 10 deep breaths. One technique is “Smell the Flowers, Blow Bubbles.” Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, into the belly (not up into the chest).
  2. Make a “calm space”: Provide a calm area where your child can engage in self-soothing and distracting activities to help through emotional episodes. Include favorite distractions (e.g. drawing, music with headphones, Legos, etc.).
  3. Accepting the “no”: Children often become upset because things do not go the way they want, and then they get into power struggles. “Accepting the no” puts the power of acceptance into their hands and rewards them for accepting those things they cannot change.
  4. Three-time rule for listening: Parents often complain that their children ignore them when asked to do something or they stop performing the task. And why not … if they never know if it is going to be two or 12 times before Mom “REALLY means it!”? Try the three-time rule with a simple reward (like a marble or quarter to save up). When your children do what is asked on the first try, reward them with a marble or quarter. Second time they are asked, no reward, and a warning. Third time, lose a marble or quarter. The important thing here is that your children will learn that they get three chances—and that’s it. You will stop nagging, and they will learn to listen. And if they listen on the first time, they will even get rewarded.
  5. Praise before punishment: Set up incentives for the positive behavior you would like your children to demonstrate (rather than just punishment for the negative behavior), i.e., a healthy dessert or 10 extra minutes of screen time for each day they do not have a meltdown.
  6. Keep it simple and be consistent: If you are setting up any kind of behavior chart for your child, follow three important rules: keep it simple, be consistent, and respond in a quick timeframe. Pick one behavior you want to change (e.g., no bullying your sibling) and provide a small reward each day. If there is a consequence for engaging in the behavior (like hitting), agree on the consequence well in advance, and stick to it.
  7. Distract instead of discussing: As parents, we feel badly when our kids are upset. So we insist on explaining our decisions. Unfortunately, reasoning in the face of an emotional meltdown is like putting out a fire with gasoline. Instead, try distracting your child with anything else: a walk, a game on your phone. Then, when they are out of “emotional mind,” you can have a more productive discussion.
  8. Validate the feelings, not the behavior: Validation means communicating to your children that you “get what they are feeling.” Try validating your child’s feelings when they are melting down. Ask questions, allow them to express how they feel, avoid “explaining yourself” or “lecturing.” When kids feel validated and understood, they become more emotionally regulated and their meltdowns subside.

Mark Purcell is the author, with Jason Murphy, of “Mindfulness for Teen Anger: A Workbook to Overcome Anger and Aggression Using MBSR and DBT Skills,” to be published in 2014 by New Harbinger.


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