Wednesday, October 28th, 2020

3 Steps to Stay Calm When Your Child Is Having A Meltdown

Published on June 4, 2014 by   ·   77 Comments Pin It
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“Seeing your child in distress, and particularly if that distress is directed at you, is the most dysregulating experience there is. Wild, out of control thoughts of epic disaster come unbidden. Rage, self doubt and other destructive feelings quickly cloud your thinking. What if you could work to push those thoughts aside, and in a way analogous to meditation, concentrated on being in the moment, concentrated on remembering to breathe? It would help you focus on your child, and on the immediate task before you rather than its global implications.” – Claudia Gold

When our child acts out, lashes out, or is simply in distress, it’s natural for us to panic.  We’re plunged into “fight, flight or freeze” because it feels like an emergency. And if our child’s distress is directed at us, then he looks like the enemy.

But it’s natural for children to have big feelings, and to act them out. If we “lose it”  when our child gets upset, we give her the message that her feelings aren’t permitted, which doesn’t help her learn to regulate her emotions. Worse, we’re saying that we can’t control ourselves until she controls herself! Whether she’s 5 or 15, that’s not what we want to model.

Of course, we know that we can handle any parenting situation better from a state of calm. But when we’re in the grip of strong emotions, we aren’t thinking. We can’t help ourselves.

Or can we? What if there were three steps that would help you shift back into calm, AND keep your child from getting upset as often?  There are.

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STEP 1:  Get Your Own Emotions Regulated

  • STOP, DROP whatever else you’re doing and BREATHE deeply.
  • Reduce the pressure:  Remind yourself that there is no emergency. No one is dying.
  • Change Your Thoughts: Say a little mantra in your mind: “She’s acting like a child because she IS a child. I’m the grown-up here.”
  • Physically release your tension: Notice where you’re holding tension in your body and shake it out. Take a deep breath and blow it out. Make a loud (but nonthreatening) sound. Often, water helps ground us. Hold your hands under running water, or get a drink of water.
  • Be Here Now.  If you can bring yourself into the present moment, your upset will drop away. That’s because when we’re upset, we’re actually over-reacting — we’re triggered from the past (“My parents would have smacked me for saying such a thing!”) or frightened of the future (“My child is going to be a sociopath!”). In this moment, if you can let all that go, there’s no emergency.

Step 2:  Shift the Energy

  • Make things emotionally safe.  Say “We’re having a hard time, Sweetie. Let’s try a Do-Over.”
  • Empathize. Acknowledge your child’s perspective. “Seems like you want ______. ”
  • Find the common ground. You need _____And I need _______.  What can we do to solve this?” 
  • Connect. In this moment, what action would be healing?  Anything else can wait.
  • Help your child get emotionally regulated.  Kids usually do this best by crying in the safety of our arms/presence. Now that you’re calm, you can offer your compassion to help him feel safe enough to cry. Breathe your way through this, reminding yourself that his tears are his way of opening his heart to reconnecting.

Step 3:  Learn the Lesson

  1. Learn. When you’re calm, reflect on what you can learn from what happened.  How can you support yourself to stay more emotionally regulated?  (Allow more time, get more sleep, fewer commitments, see things from your child’s perspective?)
  2. Teach. Later, when you and your child feel calm and connected, say “We had a hard time today, didn’t we?  I’m sorry I got upset. I guess I was worried. I am working hard not to yell. What can each of us do differently next time?”
  3. Change. If this is a recurring situation, make a list of possible solutions and start trying them. Life is too short to endure the same problems over and over again.

You won’t remember these steps in the heat of the moment. Why not print out a little cheat sheet and carry it around with you?  A few months of practice, and you won’t even remember the last time you lost your temper.

Dr. Laura Markham is the author of the must-read parenting book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. You can visit her at AhaParenting.com

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Readers Comments (77)

  1. Schelle says:

    I am trying to learn this with my 2 year old (third child). I am certain that it works and is better than shushing or distracting her, or worse, getting caught up in her upset. We are moving towards weaning, and yesterday she woke up terribly upset and screaming when she realised she had fallen asleep in her chair without nursing first. She didn’t want to be held, and screamed louder and kicked at me if I tried to touch her. I did the self help routine above, decided she had every right to be angry and grieving, and that if I gave her a safe space to express those feelings it would help us move forward in the weaning process. So far so good. I sat close to her and made gentle, calm reassuring noises while she screamed and cried. After 5 minutes, my 90 year old mother in law, who lives with us, started hovering in the background. I know she completely disagrees with this parenting method, so I did my best to ignore her and just stay calm. My daughter saw her and screamed louder than ever. MIL thinks if you leave a child to cry she will go into fits. Her philosophy is to immediately distract the child, tell them everything is ok, or in other words, teach them to bottle it up. I can tell how effective this method is by how much repressed hurt and anger my husband carries! Eventually she couldn’t keep her self control any longer and snapped at me that she had lived with lots of women and babies and never seen anyone as cruel as me, that my behaviour was idiotic, and I should be shot! As if it wasn’t hard enough maintaining my composure against my daughter’s raging! I threw a pillow at her (missed), told her she had no idea what she was talking about and to mind her own business, snatched up my daughter, still screaming, and shut us both into the bedroom, where soon afterwards she subsided into sobbing and hugging me tightly. It is no use talking to MIL or explaining what I was doing and why. I have tried before and she just does not get it – like she can’t understand when she starts telling my daughter she is a “good girl” every 5 seconds, or tries to control her instead of observing what she wants to do, and trusting her to have her own opinions about things. My daughter loves her and delights in spending time with her, so I grit my teeth and try to just observe from a short distance so I don’t get tempted to nag MIL about it… Anyway, I just needed somewhere to vent about that experience and you were in the right place at the right time. Thanks for reaffirming my belief that I am helping, not harming, by giving my little one the right to express her feelings no matter how uncomfortable that may be at times!

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