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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