Let me first begin by pointing out that meltdown children aren’t the only ones to lose the plot, it happen to us all occasionally. We can all get absolutely overwhelmed and helpless and loose sense of reality and lash out. If you’re on the receiving end of that it can be a nightmare! If you’re a parent with children that constantly meltdown, it can be soul distressingly helpless. There is a way forward though… there is an approach that will work if you first understand how the brain works when the meltdown occurs.
I was at my sisters place this last month and had the pleasure of spending time with her, her lovely hubby and two teenage children. Her daughter is just a year younger than mine (14 yrs old) and has had some rocky experiences in the last 2 years. My niece has had a different experience of parenting because like most “experts” find out… your family hardly ever hears your advice or recognises your experience in a particular field. My sister still sees me as her younger sister and not as a counsellor and parenting coach and trainer. I’ve learned not to push my ideas onto deaf ears… as one of my mentors says “It is what it is… says love”.
Anyway, I came in one day to face a very frustrated and angry sister who had just “dealt” with one of her daughter’s meltdowns over something seemingly trivial. They now were at opposite ends of the house licking their wounds. Having witnessed one of these before, I knew exactly what had happened and could visualise it well… and it wasn’t pretty. This is where I could clearly see the research of Tina Payne Bryson and Dr Daniel J Siegel (who have written The Whole Brain Child) could have helped my sister… if she was willing to hear it. It would have saved her a lot of frustration and time to understand how the brain works for children and adults.
Emotions are stored in an area of the brain that is also connected to primitive or reactive (fight, flight and freeze) responses. This is actually separate from our logic brain. Tina and Daniel call this area the downstairs brain (emotional/reactive) and our upstairs brain (logical). When your child goes into a meltdown, they are in their downstairs brain and it can be hard for them to connect to any logic about the situation (despite your reassurance or telling them of the facts). Their fear, anger, rejection, helplessness is spiralling out of control and cannot be reigned in with logic or yelling. Shouting or negatively responding to a person in a meltdown only feeds that negative feeling more and keeps that person in their downstairs hell for longer.
Bottom line is… you need to remain calm… don’t walk away (that also feeds it)… don’t respond defensively (it’s really not about you anyway)… and breath into your heart (which helps put you into your upstairs brain) and just reflect back their emotions about the situation…
You need to listen with your heart…
Reflect on how tough their situation is… empathise! Don’t judge!
Tell them that you can see how angry/scared/annoyed/frustrated (fill in the emotion here) they are…
Let them pour out their emotions while you observe (warning… don’t jump into the emotion with them) and reflect.
With little children there is a very small window right at the beginning of the tantrum or meltdown where you can do this and bounce out of it quickly. If you leave it too long, the meltdown will go on for longer than it needs to and increase the possibility of you reacting negatively.
In most cases, the earlier you can respond by listening and reflecting on the emotions, the quicker the meltdown will be resolved.
What I have found, in my own personal experience, is by approaching meltdowns in this way your child eventually learns to regulate their own emotions (an important developmental skills) and meltdowns become fewer and then non-existent.
My daughter is almost 15 and I have yet to experience the “hormonal hell” that teenage girls supposedly to go through. She is a bright and articulate young woman. I am constantly helping her process her emotions by reflecting and responding appropriately and she quite often does it for herself. We’ve just gone through a very stressful and painful experience of a loved one passing, someone who was very close to my daughter and she hasn’t come out of that without expressing emotions and releasing the pain. There’s no repressing emotions in my household! Just lots of talking and accepting of all emotions… because they all pass easily if we can express them and not repress them.
If you are coping or not coping with meltdown children, I can highly recommend that you read The Whole Brain Child by Dr Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson PhD. It can give you the strategies that you are seeking and strategies for helping you deal with those meltdown moments. I have found that by using just reflective listening, the meltdowns never get beyond the first emotional outburst.