I have been asked several times by parents/carers what the best thing to do when a young child has an emotional meltdown. Quite often they want to know how to prevent it, and if not prevent it, try to cut it as short as possible. But my answer goes like this….
When a particularly young child has a tantum, you can guarantee it’s actually worse for them than it is for you. Often it’s the only way a young child can communicate their displeasure and it can very quickly consume and overpower them. However, it’s easy to forget this and you will probably still be experiencing similar emotions to those your parents/carers felt when you were a young child doing the same. This can mean you can feel really uncomfortable, on edge, maybe irritated or possibly embarrassed if you’re in public – like some’s going to judge you for your toddler’s behaviour. If your child’s emotional displays trigger emotional discomfort in you, you might be inclined to try to frantically cheer them up when they are sad, be cross with them for being angry or dismissive if their emotion seems over-the-top or making too much of a fuss (maybe like your parents did). Many of our childhoods left us with the impression that we didn’t have the right to experience the emotions we did – that they were inappropriate, irritating or naughty and we react in a way that tries to obliterate them.
Your emotional reaction is not helpful for your child. If you imagine yourself having a meltdown, how does it feel if someone around you joins in with your uncomfortable emotions? How much better does it feel when another person remains reassuringly calm and very available to you? That’s what your child simply needs when they are overwhelmed with emotion: your calm and attention. It helps not only to soothe them; if you’re their steady rock, it makes them feel ‘contained’ and helps the emotion eventually de-escalate. What’s more, once you’ve nailed this as your consistent approach, you end up feeling considerably less stressed when your child escalates.
As your child grows older and they understand more, it can also help to calmly validate what they are feeling. You could say for example, ‘I can see you’re angry. I can understand why you’re angry. I would probably be angry too if that happened to me.’ This doesn’t mean you ever have to give in to the emotion if it has been triggered by your child not getting their way. You can simply express your understanding of their disappointment but still stand your ground and maybe cuddle them through the emotion. With older children you can also give a clear reason why they cannot have what they want.
With this approach, your child will eventually feel safe to have emotions, their stronger emotional reactions are likely to pass more quickly and they will eventually be someone who is able to self-regulate. They will be able to experience emotions in a purer state, with less baggage than they would if they have had to experience your emotional responses on top of theirs. Emotions will seem more acceptable to them, less of a big deal and they are more likely to feel that they can cope – as after all – whatever they felt didn’t rattle their parents.
So the next time your child experiences a strong wave of emotion, take a deep breath, stay calm and just be simply there for them!
If you want further consolidation of what is covered in this post, you could watch my brief video: How to Deal with Your Child’s Tantrums.