How to Manage a Meltdown

MeltdownsTis the season—for stress, impatience and probably some unrealistic expectations and resentment over why your family isn’t like the happy ones you see on Instagram. That means trickle down stress for your children, no matter what age. Your littlest ones may show it in irregular sleep, eating, toileting and generally cranky behavior. Your middle ones may show it in angry outbursts and words that push anyone’s buttons. And your teens may simply disappear to their rooms to get away from it all. 

But all are at risk of some major meltdowns. Mainly because children can’t hold onto as much stress as we can—note: this is a good thing—and are far more likely to let it out at home with the safest people in their lives. More good things. 

Nobody likes dealing with kids’ meltdowns. Especially kids. Please do not be influenced to ignore or threaten your child by those who say, “He’s doing that on purpose. He’s just trying to get your attention.” We’ve all had meltdowns. They’re not fun. Your kids aren’t doing it on purpose. And of course they need your attention.

Many will do anything to avoid a volatile child from having a meltdown. When they happen often and at the drop of a hat, you start walking on eggshells and may even “give in” to your child so the anger doesn’t erupt. But giving in does teach your child how to get what she wants when you do whatever it takes to avoid her screams. I know, it’s sometimes required for sanity in the moment.

Parents are naturally exhausted from a child who demands, demands, demands, or refuses to do what’s asked and reacts with a seemingly undue amount of anger toward the parent who makes a perfectly simple request. This is a child who gets triggered easily. The meltdown has less to do with the situation at hand and all to do with your child’s current emotional tolerance. 

Feelings of powerlessness, fear, loss of control, being misunderstood, unheard, unimportant, left out (your child’s perception of the circumstance) is likely lurking in your child’s emotional reservoir. When that reservoir gets too full, the emotions must pour out. Onto you is the safest bet.

Then that child is told to calm down, stop getting so upset, stop yelling, get control of himself, go to his room. What do you think happens then to that emotional reservoir? Think calming down is easy? Pick any one of those feelings above and triple the effect. Fear is a good one to start with. If you yell at or threaten a screaming child, all you’re doing is increasing her fear. Fear is always defended by anger.

Let’s say you have yelled at your child because she still hasn’t cleaned her room after you have reminded her multiple times. In frustration, she retorts, “I’ll do it. Go away.” You shout back impatiently, “That’s what you always say, and it never gets done.” Then she yells, “Well do it yourself then.” Enough to anger anyone, but if your anger comes back vehemently, chances are she has triggered fear in you. She is never going to take responsibility for herself. She’ll never do what she’s told. You have failed at teaching her responsibility, consideration for others, or being helpful.

Your child, on the other hand, may react in anger because she fears being controlled, never getting to do what she wants, being treated like a baby, always being the one you yell at and never her brother, etc. These fears are based on past experience or future expectations. Fears are rarely about the present but are what trigger anger.

What to do—It’s not what you think

The first thing is to work on yourself so you don’t get into power struggles. At least step back and wait once you feel that anger rising. Know that there is nothing you can do or say that will have anything but the opposite effect from what you want. The more you engage, the more fear you build up in your child, and the faster that emotional reservoir fills up.

But meltdowns happen just because kids are told what to do all day every day. So they can start with a calm, regulated reservoir, they need to purge those emotions.

sad teenWhen you try to avoid meltdowns by giving in, telling them to calm down, or giving a consequence, what you’re actually doing is putting a lid on the feelings which continue to build until they leak out (because they have to) in worse and worse behavior. Or they shut down and become a depressed or absent teen. And when they become parents, they’ll explode when their kids have meltdowns. 

See the cycle here? It goes on and on. It’s called generational trauma.

Stop the cycle by allowing your child’s anger and fear to purge, get out, escape. You’ll notice afterwards when the meltdown is allowed to end on its own, how much better your child feels. The reservoir is clean. The feelings are of being understood, heard.

The problem usually is your fear. What do I say and do? I don’t have time for this. Why does she always… or never…? 

Here’s the key:

staying close

You don’t have to do anything other than just be there as close as works. If he yells go away, he is most likely saying, I’m embarrassed and don’t want you to see me, or I hate this feeling and you’re just going to make it worse

Go or turn around just enough for him to stop telling you to go away. But make sure you are present, allowing and accepting in your energy. That’s all. This is not yours to fix. Only to support and bear witness. 

Imagine seeing a meltdown start and thinking, Oh, good, now he’ll get all those bad feelings out and can get regulated.

meltdown mountainBut the hard part is getting your head in the right place to allow it all. Trusting yourself and trusting your child. Letting go of those fears. Meltdowns need to go up and over the mountain before they can come down again without force. When that is allowed, your child can drop out of the terrifying tornado that has caught him up and land in your loving, safe arms for a hug and possibly a recount of what happened.

Related Articles:

How To Step Out Of A Power Struggle

The Dos and Don’ts of Power Struggles

Realistic Expectations De-stress Your Parenting

Related Podcast:

Tip #15 – How To Manage a Meltdown, aired on 11/27/11