When our children get upset and lose control we usually experience some big feelings too. Perhaps their meltdown triggers our defensiveness (“there’s no reason to be so upset”), or maybe we feel guilty or sad and want to help our child’s feelings go away as quickly as possible (“its okay, don’t cry”). Here’s 6 steps to coach your child through the storm of meltdown feelings and help him learn to be aware of, accept, and take responsibility for his feelings. You can teach your child to have a healthy relationship with his emotions.
Step One: The very first thing to do in a meltdown situation is check in with yourself. You want to be able to help your child get through the meltdown so calming any potential storm of your own is key. You can use the Turn It Around Technique to Pause, Reframe, and Reconnect.
- Start by pausing what you are doing, take a deep breath- remind yourself big feelings are not dangerous.
- Then reframe by describing to yourself what is happening (“my child is showing me his big feelings, he needs help”).
- Then reconnect by noticing how your own body is feeling. Notice and accept your own feelings and agendas and then let them go.
Step Two: Continue to reconnect. You’ve calmed yourself and now want to reach out to connect with your child. He is feeling out of control and needs to feel safe and connected in order to move through the meltdown.
- Start by controlling your own breathing, make it a bit obvious so your child can hear the slow deep breaths
- Use a calm voice, soft and low, tell your child you are with him, that he is safe, and that he can handle this.
- If he wants it, use touch- a hug or place your hand on his, to convey that you are there and that he is safe to feel his feelings.
Step Three: Use empathy to help your child feel understood. Sometimes we grown ups try to use logic to talk someone out of their feelings or try to push our agenda by enforcing the rules before sending the message of understanding. People, kids included, just want to feel heard and understood. Use empathy so that your child doesn’t feel like he has to fight to be understood.
- A simple strategy for this is to say “You seem ______” and then test out a feeling word. You don’t have to get it right. Your child will either agree and feel safer or disagree and tell you how he’s really feeling.
Step Four: Stay here. The temptation to redirect away from the big feelings may be strong. You might be feeling impatient or uncomfortable or tired. Don’t rush this step though. Staying present with your child through the meltdown and intense feelings shows him that he is accepted and loved and that he doesn’t have to stuff his feelings down.
- Continue to connect by reflecting back to him the feelings he is giving you- “You’re feeling mad that your sister keeps taking your stuff” or “you’re really upset right now”.
Step Five: Validate how your child is feeling. You can do this by repeating his words back to him “you are saying that you are worried” or by identifying his need “you wish that _____”. Keep in mind that validating your child’s feelings doesn’t have to mean that you agree with them or his behavior. You may find yourself wanting to tack on a “but” after the validation “I see that you’re mad but you can’t hit your sister”. There will be an opportunity to address the behavior once your child is feeling safe and connected and calm again.
Step Six: Practice for next time. Once you’ve calmed yourself, created safety, and validated feelings, your child may be feeling less emotionally flooded and ready to problem solve. This is the time to address the behavior. Guide your child toward coming up with a solution instead of telling him what to do. This shows your confidence in him and he is going to be more willing to participate if it was his own idea.
- Try a Review and Reset- “You were feeling so mad about your sister taking your stuff that you were hitting. Can you think of a way to handle this without hitting?” or “That was a tough situation, is there anything that you could do to make it better?”
If this method of working through intense emotions is new to you it may feel like it takes too long or isn’t effective or even is just letting your child “get away with stuff”. Try to stick it out. As you get more comfortable with the technique it will go faster and smoother. And as your child learns that his big feelings are acceptable and not dangerous he will be better prepared to manage his feelings in a healthy way.