October 22nd, 2011 | 23 Comments

7 Steps to Manage Yourself When Your Child Melts Down

Note to Reader: Kids temper tantrums and meltdowns are one of the most challenging moments a mom or dad can face. They  happen at the most inconvenient times and places. Children with SPD, Asperger Syndrome, ADHD, and Autism often reach overload and have more meltdowns. Temper tantrums are very different from a meltdown, but the way they make parents feel during the moment are the same.  I think Dr. Laura’s tips on how we can manage ourselves during these moments are brilliant.

by Dr. Laura Markham

“I’m struggling with my own inability to be present and show empathy to my young children when they are having meltdowns. I want to be able to do this. I know this is the right thing to do. But when the meltdowns start, something in me shifts and all my good intentions fly out the window and I just want to get away from them. I’m not sure how to change this behavior because it seems so deep-rooted in me.

Who hasn’t had a hard time with this?  I know that when my child starts to lose it, something in me wants to scream “No!”

  • No, I don’t have time for this right now!
  • No, you’re embarrassing me, people are looking!
  • No, why can’t she be reasonable?
  • No, we’ve been through this, not again! 
  • No, she is so self-centered, I need to teach her a lesson!
  • No, what am I doing wrong that she’s tantrumming again?
  • No, I know this is my fault, I should have… I shouldn’t have…!
  • No, why is she doing this to me?!
  • No, why can’t you just suck it up the way I do?

Bingo.  Most of us learned as children that our feelings were unacceptable, even dangerous.   So when our child has a meltdown, the little one inside of us gets triggered.  Danger signs flash. As always when danger looms, we feel a sense of panic.  We just want to get away (that’s flight) or we feel a sudden rage — we want to MAKE him shut up (that’s fight) or we go numb (that’s freeze).

Holding him with empathy, allowing him to let all those feelings out? Witnessing his anger without taking it personally?  That’s a stretch for most parents, maybe an impossible one. All of our good intentions fly out the window.

And yet every child has numerous experiences of fear, anger, frustration and sadness that need to be expressed and accepted. That’s a foundation of emotional intelligence, which allows kids to learn to manage their emotions.  In fact, we’re the role model.  Our child learns how to regulate her emotions and behavior from watching us regulate OUR emotions and behavior.

So what can we do to address our own deep-rooted feelings, so we can be there for our kids?

1.  Acknowledge your own feelings.  Our panic in the face of our child’s raw emotions is an issue from our own childhoods.  The only way to uproot it is to see how it served us when we were little.  Say to your rising panic:  “Thanks for keeping me safe when I was little.  I’m grown now.  All these feelings are ok.” 

2. Remind yourself that it isn’t an emergency:  “It’s natural that I feel this way when my child is upset.  But whatever happens, I can handle it.” T his isn’t a threat; it’s your beloved child, who needs your loving help right now. Whatever happens, you really can handle it.  If your mind persists in setting off alarms, tell it you’ll deal with those concerns later, not now.

3. Remind yourself that expressing feelings is a good thing.  We know your child will feel these feelings, no matter what.  The only question is whether you make it ok for him to express them, or whether you teach him they’re dangerous.  Once we feel our emotions, they evaporate. (Just in case you’re wondering, it’s the emotions we repress that pop out without warning and get us into trouble.) Even if you can’t say a whole-hearted YES! when your child starts to melt down, try to move from your automatic NO! to a warm-hearted OK, just the way you do at other times when your child needs you.

4. Take the pressure off.  You don’t have to fix your child or the situation.  All you have to do is stay present.  Your child doesn’t even need the red cup, or whatever he’s crying for, he needs your loving acceptance of him, complete with all his tangled up feelings. His disappointment, rage, grief? They’re all ok, and they will all pass without you doing a thing. 

5. Take a deep breath and choose love.  Every choice we make, at core, is a move towards either love or fear.  Let your caring for your child give you the courage to choose love.  Not just love for your child, but love for the child you once were, and the parent you are now.  Just keep breathing, and saying to yourself “I choose love.”  (Too corny?  Research shows this works.  But you can easily find another effective mantra:  “She’s acting like a kid because she IS a kid….This too shall pass….I came out ok and she will too…I can handle this….”  Whatever works for you.)

6. Keep it simple. Your child needs you to witness her outpouring of emotion and let her know that she is still a good person, despite all these yucky feelings.  So she needs your reassurance and permission.  Explanations, negotiations, remorse, recriminations, analysis of why she’s so upset, or attempts to “comfort” her (“There, there, you don’t have to cry, that’s enough”) will all shut down this natural emotive process.  (Of course, you want to “teach” — but that needs to wait.  Your child can’t learn until she’s calm.)   You don’t have to say much.  Your calm, loving tone is what matters.  Maybe:

You are so upset. 
Go ahead and cry.
That’s ok.  Everybody needs to cry sometimes.
I hear how mad and sad you are.
I will stay right here while you get all those mad and sad feelings out.
You’re telling me to go away, so I will move back a little bit, but I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings.
When you’re ready, I am right here to hug you.

7. Find a good listener so that you can talk about your feelings.  Nothing triggers primal emotions like parenting.  You also need to vent, which means you need someone to listen.  Someone who will resist giving you advice.  Someone who won’t be shocked when you admit that you wanted to slam your kid against the wall or leave him there in the grocery store, because they know everyone has felt this way, and you wouldn’t actually do it. Someone who won’t get triggered and go into a panic about whether it’s ok for you, or your child, to feel such things.  Someone who will let you cry, who will be there for you just as you’re there for your child.

This is hard work for parents, but a great gift to our children.  The good news is that once we say YES to children’s full range of feelings, they learn to manage them in healthy ways.  In fact, you’ll see positive results immediately after every “tantrum” that you meet with love, because your child will feel so much better after emptying that full backpack of feelings. That’s unconditional love in action.

Dr. Laura Markham is the mother of two terrific teenagers, a PhD in clinical psychology, and the founder of Aha! Parenting.com.  You can get her free email inspirations daily or weekly at AhaParenting.com.

Giving children the tools to manage and express their anger is paramount. Angry Octopus is a fun way to introduce breathing and muscle relaxation. Read the story to your child or let them listen to a download today.

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23 Comments on “7 Steps to Manage Yourself When Your Child Melts Down”

  • Very touching. I’m glad you gave a “script” of what to *say.* Sometimes that’s where I get bogged down, especially in tense moments.

  • Yes, even with children I find it helpful to not only have a script but to practice saying the words so that when you need them you are used to saying them. This help kids with responses to kids at school as well

  • Thank you so much for this! My oldest daughter and I do not have a good history when things get heated. I LOVE the mantra “I choose love”! I have used something similar but actually forgot I had done this. Thank you for the reminder!

    One question: my oldest daughter is 9 and can get very angry and start really kicking and hitting things, like her bed, stuffed animals, etc. Lately I have been just letting her get it out, but it doesn’t seem healthy. Or is it?? I want her to not supress her emotions but I also want her to have a healthy relationship with those emotions. Curious your opinion.

    Thank you-
    http://Www.chickswithchoices.com team member

  • I personally think it is OK, but at her age she may appreciate learning more socially acceptable methods. I would empower her with letting her explore different ways to express anger. Discuss these methods during calm moments. She can write down what she is angry about or how she feels, tear up the paper, bunch it into a ball and toss it at a garbage can. She can take a deep breath and discuss how she feels with you. She can use positive statements, like I am angry about my HW, but I will figure it out. You can teach her deep breathing or other relaxation techniques. I have 4 techniques on my Indigo Ocean Dreams CD that can help. Breathing, visualizing, positive statements, and progressive muscle relaxation. If your daughter still prefer stomping and hitting. I would have her set a timer and encourage her to keep it up for a full minute and then take a deep breath and move on. Hope this helps

  • What wonderful advice. I think we have a tendency to want the situation to go away quickly so we panic and do something even if it is not the right thing to do. Taking time to think about your child and how you are going to approach the tantrum is vital. Acknowledge how you feel too and be calm and understanding when you deal with it. Attitude breeds attitude.

  • Thanks for sharing. Very useful info that can be implemented.

  • I just wanted to thank you for this. Wonderfully explained and so helpful. Am so glad I’m not the only one that feels the flight/fight/freeze response during temper tantrums (which makes me feel so guilty later), and I’m so happy to have these tools to use when it gets tough. “I choose love” will be etched in my brain from now on. Thank you!

  • I think this is really interesting & kids need to know that a whole range of emotions is ok, but there is one flaw: when you’re in public, which is where many tantrums occur, you can’t just say, it’s ok, I know you want that bunny, and you can’t have it, but it’s ok to be upset & I love you — you have to remove the child from the premises. Not just for your child’s sake but for everyone else around you.

  • Thanks Naomi, Love that…Attitude breeds attitude…

  • Yes, At times we do need to remove the child from the premises…Those are the moments that it is really helpful to take deep breaths, remain calm, and choose LOVE!

  • Heather: I think anger is a signal that something inside is hurting or scary. So when your daughter gets angry, the most helpful response on your part will be compassionate empathy. You can’t let her actually destroy property, or hurt a person (including herself), but she can’t hurt her stuffed animals. It’s fine for her to lash out at them in that moment when she feels rage. You can breathe and stay calm and say “Wow, you are so upset, what’s going on?” SHe will begin to vent and tell you angrily all the things that are wrong. Just listen, say “Wow…mmmmm…..My goodness…No wonder you’re upset….I see…” Soon she’ll get to the wound behind the anger, whatever is hurting or scaring her. By then, she may even cry, but in any case you can move in and hold her and empathize. The more often you do this, the more quickly she will get to the upset behind the anger, and the less she will need to dwell on the anger. The anger is just a wall around the heart to keep the pain out….and as we know, the best defense is a good offense!

  • Jenny– You are so right that parenting in public is the hardest. And I completely agree with you that we do have to remove our tantrumming child from the premises, for everyone’s sake.

    But I still think everything in my article still holds in this situation. Meaning, we still regulate our own emotions as well as we can to stay calm, and we still empathize (“You really want that bunny”).

    Since public situations seem even more like an emergency — with the added tension of everyone staring at us! — it becomes even more important that we remind ourselves that it is not an emergency.

    And also that we remind ourselves that our child is also overwhelmed by being in public and that might even be part of the reason for the meltdown, so more than ever she needs our love and understanding.

    And, finally, that our child is our #1 responsibility. Not the people around us. We will probably never see them again. Their judgment is irrelevant. You wouldn’t let them choose what color to paint your living room. Why would you let them choose how you teach your child, where the stakes are so much higher?

    I agree with Lori. Those are the moments that it is most important of all that we be compassionate to ourselves, take deep breaths, remain calm, and choose LOVE!

  • […] ways to handle the tough moments with my little rebel, I read this article from Stress Free Kids on managing tantrums and meltdowns and immediately connected with this: You don’t have to fix your child or the situation. All you […]

  • […] Be close by if they want a hug. Use this or similar language. “You’re telling me to go away, so I will move back a little bit, but I won’t leave you alone with these scary feelings. When you’re ready, I am right here to hug you.” (https://stressfreekids.com/9771/kids-temper-tantrums-and-meltdowns) […]

  • Terrific suggestion…give space as needed but remain available…love it… Hugs make most things better.

  • […] but the way they make parents feel during the moment are the same. Here are 7 tips that will help: https://stressfreekids.com/9771/kids-temper-tantrums-and-meltdowns. This entry was posted in Teens and tagged ADHD, Anger, Asperger's, Autism, SPD, Stress, Tics by […]

  • This is easier said then done, and you will be pritty much rewarding you’re child but cuddling them and saying it’s ok while they flip out. I think they need to learn that acting like that is not ok . Otherwise it would just happen all the time!.

  • This is helpful to me as a grandmother. Toddler tantrums I can handle -nearly 3 year old granddaughter. Its the nearly 9 year old outbursts I find really difficult. My daughter, 29, has just been diagnosed with MS and her nearly 9 is very angry and controlling. I know deep down that she is scared about why mummy is different but I am finding it a struggle to view. Any comments would be welcomed

  • My 4 year old DD gets into a cycle where she won’t stop asking after I have said no. I acknowledge her feelings. Say things like, “you really want the book and you can’t have it. I understand. I’m here for you.” Sometimes I feel like I have to say that we are not going to talk about it anymore but you can be upset and I’m here while you get your feelings out. If I don’t say that she will continue asking for whatever she wants for more than 30 minutes. Is saying that I don’t want to talk about it after we have discussed it at length repressing her feelings?

  • Here is the question I have! My oldest has always been very PHYSICAL when upset. Just today, he had a huge meltdown. I think he was hungry, tired, and going through a growth spurt which all contributed. Anyway, he started throwing things at me that could really injure me. I also have a toddler and a baby who I had to protect from his throwing objects/hitting/hurting people.

    I usually don’t have a problem putting him in his room when this happens, to protect everybody. But in this case in this moment I couldn’t even get close to him holding the baby because she may have gotten hurt. It lasted a while….once hubby got involved we tried putting him in his room and he screamed and threw things at the door. Another time I put the baby down and tried hugging him and giving him affection, and he would just continue to hurt me. I stayed calm pretty much the whole time trying to be really sensitive to him and work it through and talk with him/reason.

    But none of it worked. What do you recommend in this situation? Again, this type of behavior doesn’t happen frequently much anymore now that he’s getting older (5) but I never know what the right thing to do is. Being “nice” doesn’t seem to work, and being “mean” doesn’t work either.

  • Hi. Thanks for this article. This has really hit the nail on the head for me. I find we are having many of these situations with my 4 year old currently, and some of these strategies are really helpful. I find the being verbally and physically attacked in public scenario really hard to deal with, as I feel hurt by the intensity of her emotions, and find myself further triggered by the physical aggression. Unfortunately with a very physical 8 month old in tow I can’t always put her feelings and needs first, as I need to keep him safe too. This seems like a big betrayal for her I’m sure and triggers both of our feelings further. I’m sure that the fact I need to put his safety or needs before hers are a big contributing factor to the meltdown. Any thoughts or suggestions to cope with this situation would be highly welcome.

  • My 5 year old daughter has been having raging tantrums since she was 2. The latest one, yesterday, was another yelling, kicking, screaming, throwing things at me tantrum that also led to her hitting her almost 2 year old sister. I managed to stay mostly calm and tried to just hold her so that she would stop hurting me. She just gets out of control and no amount of trying to connect with her seems to work. I would just sit there with her and tell her I was there for her but, like I said, she lashes out physically, and I don’t want to be hurt (she is strong) and I especially do not want her hurting her sister. I also worry that my younger one sees all of this behavior and will eventually be scared of her sister or, even worse, will start doing the same things. My mother, whom we live with and is a Kindergarten teacher, says we need to “do something about that kid” like take her to therapy. Her 4 pre-school teachers who have on occasion witnessed this behavior, have said that she is just a spirited child who is sensitive and needs connection, etc. My husband and I are at a loss. I get so much out of your articles. Can you help with this specifically?

  • I can always use a few more tools in my pocket to deal with a tantrums. Even when it’s the same info it reminds me that I am doing something right.

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