Be the Calm in Your Child’s Storm: Strategies for Guiding Your Child Through a Meltdown

Calming your child's anxiety

With the transition from the school year to summer looming, many parents are concerned about how to best manage their child’s dysregulated emotions and behaviors.

Some children struggle more during this time of year and tend to be more irritable, have longer more intense meltdowns, or just have poorer coping abilities in general.  Whatever the reason, parents should know that there are several things they can do to help their child through these more difficult times without it taking such a toll on the parents, child, and the whole family.

Here are some strategies to keep in mind if your child is experiencing difficulties with managing their emotions and behaviors:

Stay Calm—As the adult, it is important to know that your child will use your own emotional state to help re-regulate during difficult periods of time.  If you become anxious or upset because your child is having a meltdown, it is only going to exacerbate the problem.  You need to remain calm, cool, and collected during behavioral meltdowns so that your child can re-regulate more appropriately.  Remember, you need to be the calm in your child’s storm!

Ignore the Verbal Vomit—All too often I will hear from parents that their child has said hurtful and unkind things during meltdowns that have been very upsetting to the parents and/or other family members.  It is important to keep in mind that when your child is upset, he or she is not going to be processing information nearly as effectively or efficiently as during a typical interaction.  When kids say things like “I don’t like you” or “You’re a terrible mom,” it’s very likely that they don’t actually mean it.  It’s more along the lines of what I call verbal vomit.  The words don’t hold a lot of weight, and you need to let them go.

Don’t Engage in Arguing—Aside from verbal vomit, children also have a tendency to engage in arguing when they are upset or melting down.  If this occurs, let your child know that you are not talking about that particular subject now, or at least not until they have calmed down.  There is no sense in arguing, as it will likely just rev-up your engine and continue your child’s meltdown.  If you want to stop the meltdown, keep in mind that you are going to have to put a stop to the arguing and not engage in it with your child.  It will be hard for your child to argue with thin air!

Set Limits and Boundaries—When your child is having a meltdown, be sure to give clearly stated simple limits and boundaries.  You do not have to be real elaborate with your words.  Your child does not need to know that his or her behavior is unacceptable, that he or she won’t get anywhere in life acting this way, and that you are done with it.  That’s way too much, and it really won’t resonate with your child.  It will be important for your child to know what your expectations are, but you need to keep them simple and concise so that your child is better able to process and understand them.

Give Them Space—As your child’s meltdown comes to a close, be sure to give them a little time and space to regroup.  It is important to know that self-regulation, regulating one’s own emotions and behaviors, can be a lot of work for children—and some adults for that matter.  As your child begins to calm, give them a moment or two to relax and let their system reorganize.  Once they are calm and they have had some time to recoup, they will be in a much better place to go back to whatever the original problem or issue was and work toward resolving it.

I hope that these strategies will be helpful for you during times of distress at home.  Just keep in mind that you can be the guiding light in your child’s meltdown, and the calm in their storm.

Article written by Courtney Kowalczyk, LLP, psychologist at Horizons Developmental Resource Center.

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