Big emotions can be scary, overwhelming, and stressful for parents (and for kids!). Use these three tips to parent with a calm confidence during your child’s next meltdown.
She stands in the kitchen screaming. Hands clenched at her sides. Eyes focused and glaring.
You try everything – offering a hug, yelling “settle down,” sending her to her room, taking away screen time – nothing helps.
She’s still raging.
Why won’t she just take a deep breath and calm down? Why won’t she listen to your advice, realize it’s “no big deal,” and move on?
After a few minutes, you’ve lost your cool too.
You feel out of control and powerless. “Do I just let her meltdown like this forever?”
What are your options in the heat of the moment?
A Different Way To Think About Big Emotions
I like to imagine emotions like a hill.
On one side of the hill, your child is calm, content, and happy.
But then, something happens – a trigger, a stressful situation, a disappointment, a disconnection – and their brain and body begin to respond. They may be agitated, fidgety, they may run away or hide, they may talk back or snap at a sibling. Some children move up the hill quickly, often without much warning, while others slowly climb to the top.
The top of the hill is the height of the emotion. This is where the intensity is at its peak. At this moment, your child’s brain is in fight, flight, or freeze mode. They are not able to think clearly or process logical information. Their brain is scanning for threats and their body is responding by fighting, looking for an escape, screaming, or zoning out.
Eventually, the intense feelings begin to fade. Your child’s body and brain relax as they head down the other side of the hill. The argument begins to subside, they may cry, be silent, avoid your gaze, or return to play. This may be a slow descent or a quick recovery.
With time, your child’s brain and body return to their baseline on the other side of the hill.
Three things to do at the height of your child’s meltdown
The top of the hill is a scary, overwhelming, confusing, stressful place for us as parents (and for kids too!). We hate seeing our child suffer, we want to help, we feel our own emotions rising, and may be triggered by their emotional outburst.
And, while we’d like to avoid it altogether, there’s no way to completely avoid big feelings.
Rather than looking for a perfect strategy to stop the meltdown, decrease the intensity, or prevent it from happening, our job is to support our kids through the messy middle, knowing they will come down on the other side soon.
1. Calm yourself first.
This may seem counterintuitive, but focusing your energy on forcing your child to calm down is probably going to backfire. Instead, focus on your own breathing, your body posture, your thoughts. Yes, it’s exhausting and yes, it may be scary, overwhelming, stressful, and tense – and – your child needs you to be their safe, confident center. They need to know they can rely on you to be in control when they are out of control. It’s normal to be upset when our kids are upset. It’s OK if this step is challenging, or if you start off calm but end up matching your child’s intensity. Notice your reaction and continue practicing – it will get easier over time. Learn more about managing your anger here.
2. Talk less.
In the heat of the moment, we tend to launch into passionate lectures, giving our children reminders of why they should comply, and using logic and reasoning to help them calm down. All of this talking can add to the stress your child is feeling, increasing the intensity of their feelings, and leading to more backlash. Instead, make room for silence and choose your words carefully. If you’re going to speak, use a calm, kind, confident tone. Focus on providing encouragement and empathy, “You are safe. I’m here. You will get through this. I know you’re feeling overwhelmed right now. We’ve got you.”
3. Pause your decision-making.
When logic and reasoning don’t work, we often switch to threats, consequences, taking things away, and sending kids to their room. Unfortunately, these actions usually make things worse. When your child is at their peak intensity, they are not able to think, plan, and problem-solve. They may not be able to calm their brain and body fast enough to avoid punishment. Instead, commit to waiting until everyone is calm to talk about the conflict. When your brain is calm, you can be curious about the behavior and explore ways to help your child manage their big feelings better in the future.
Practicing this over time sends your child an important message: “I am not alone in my big feelings. My caregiver will help me get through this.”
Rather than feeling the need to be on alert, your child’s brain can begin to recognize you as a support. Rather than running away or fighting against you, they may begin to run TOWARD you, feeling safe, secure, and confident in your ability to help them get through this big, overwhelming feeling.
Why won’t my child just take a deep breath?
Coping and calming strategies are important skills for you and your child to learn and practice together. Exploring ways to stay or return to calm in times of stress helps the brain and body know what to do next time those big feelings pop up.
Unfortunately, calming strategies do not always help when our emotions are at the top of the hill.
When the emotional part of the brain is engaged, the thinking and processing part is offline, making it difficult for your child to explore calming options. Your child’s body may not feel safe enough to try to calm down. Or, your child may be too young or immature to make a calming decision on their own.
The best time to use coping and calming strategies is on either side of the hill – as the emotions are building and as the emotions are returning to the baseline.
In the meantime, your calming presence is important! When you use your own calming and coping strategies, you are better able to support your child on their way down the hill.
Big Emotions are Complicated
Every child is different and every family situation is unique.
Sometimes, it is not safe for us to be in the same room as our child when they are in the middle of a meltdown. Sometimes, we need to intervene so our child does not hut themselves or others. Sometimes, we need the support of a mental health provider, or a team of professionals to surround our family and help us all learn how to manage intense emotions.
There may be things that lead to big, heated meltdowns that need to be addressed. There may be things you need to process with a mental health provider or trusted friend. You may need to change the way your family communicates, connects, or supports one another.
I’d encourage you to read through this post to get more ideas for managing high-intensity times proactively.
You do not need to go through intense emotions alone. You are not the only parent struggling with this. Your child is not the only one struggling with big emotions. Please reach out for support.