When Your Child is Having a Meltdown
An interview with Dr. Claudia M. Gold
Red face, lots of tears and big, loud cries. Your child is having a meltdown. Your heart races, and if you don’t act quickly, you feel as if you might melt down too. Before the panic or temper sets in, what are six top tips parents can do, in the moment, when their child has lost control? Claudia M. Gold shares guidance to help our children move through their big feelings just in the nick of time. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC
Regulate your own feelings. There is a saying in medicine: “Before doing CPR, check your own pulse.” The same applies to parenting. Kids have a unique way of pushing our buttons, and an out-of control child can be particularly dysregulating to a parent. If a parent feels out-of-control, either with anger or shame or any number of feelings that these experiences may provoke, it is very difficult to help a child regulate his feelings. In the moment, you will need to take a deep breath to collect yourself. Yoga, exercise and/or therapy are some things that may help with this task.
Do not try to reason with your child in the middle of a meltdown. When a child is out of control, the thinking parts, or higher cortical centers, of his brain do not work well. However, giving words to his experience is very important. For example, you might say calmly, “I know you feel sad and angry that your friend has to go home, but I’m going to help you to calm down.” He will feel that you understand him and are going to help him get through this difficult moment. Repeated experiences like this will help him give words to his feelings and eventually calm himself down.
Take thoughtful action. There are a number of things you might actually do in the middle of a tantrum, depending on the circumstances. If your child is hungry, which is often the case as children are more vulnerable to meltdowns when they are hungry, you might offer a snack. You might distract your child with a different activity. You might just stay with your child, making sure he is physically safe, until the meltdown is over. You might have her take deep breaths along with you. However, your calm voice and reassuring presence itself will be most helpful in diffusing a meltdown.
Stay with your child. Do not expect her to calm down on her own. Think of her as stressed rather than defiant or difficult. Kids often feel helpless in the middle of a tantrum. Statements like ”I’ll be back when you can calm down.” will have the opposite effect, as a child will then feel not only out of control but also abandoned.
Use the body to help the brain. Many children who have frequent meltdowns have sensory processing issues. Your child may be not only emotionally, but also physically, out of control. To stop a meltdown while it is happening you will need to be creative, and tailor these tools to your child’s specific nature and interests. Listening to music, hitting a punching bag, snuggling with a soft blanket, going for a walk or bike ride, or taking a bath are a few things that may help a child to calm down.
Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep. Often, when kids feel out of control, bedtime, a time of significant separation, is very prolonged. There may be frequent night wakings. When everyone is sleep deprived, regulating feelings can be very difficult. Addressing sleep disruptions is an important first step.
Claudia M. Gold MD has practiced general and behavioral pediatrics for over twenty years. She has written a column on children’s mental health for the Boston Globe and writes regularly for her blog Child in Mind. She also authored the book, Keeping Your Child in Mind. She lives with her husband and children in Egremont, Massachusetts.