If you’ve ever ridden a behavioral rollercoaster with your child, you know what I’m talking about. Yes, the infamous meltdowns. Many parents struggle with how to handle their kid’s outbursts. According to psychologist Ross Greene, PhD, author of the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model, “Most parents are accustomed to dealing with problems in the heat of the moment.” With this approach, more often than not the problems are not resolved, emotions run high, and the cognitive capacity of the adult evaporates as well. There’s got to be a better way.
In his radio show, Dr. Greene says, “There is nothing great to be done in the heat of the moment.” He advises defusing, de-escalating and keeping everybody safe, reiterating the importance of addressing problems before they lead to explosive episodes.
When your children are small you may rely on the size advantage to physically restrain or remove them from a situation. But as parents, we’re all on a borrowed time and physical intervention is best avoided unless there is a safety concern. Physical intervention in the middle of an explosive situation is likely to increase its magnitude and lead to side effects, the most common of which is you being hit.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your child didn’t set out to have a meltdown in the first place. Many children just don’t have the skills to deal with a frustrating situation. The meltdown shows that they are in crisis mode. The next time you find yourself on shaky ground, do not take your child’s outburst personally. With these recommendations in mind, here are a few tips that you may find helpful. Buckle up and try the ideas below.
Your Response is Key
Empathize with your child, though be careful with your language. For example, don’t tell them to “calm down” or that they are “overreacting” as this will only aggravate the situation. It is also counter to the empathetic stance you were hoping to take, instead sending the message that their feelings don’t matter or they aren’t acceptable. Speak to your child in a calm voice and try to communicate that you understand and accept their feelings. You can't rationalize with someone who has lost control. It’s better to problem-solve after your child is calm and ready to talk about what happened.
If your child is flying off the handle and throwing things, it’s important not to narrate their behavior. For example, saying, “I see you emptied the garbage can on the floor because you’re angry” might add fuel to the fire. Instead, try, “I can see you’re angry.”
Let’s say your child has a bad hair day and yells, “This haircut makes me look stupid!” So, the empathetic response might sound like, “I’m very sorry. You feel stupid because of your haircut.” It’s good if it works, but adding the “feel” may not be the best response for some children. They tend to hear it as a dismissal or a correction. As an alternative, try to narrate what happened (again, not their behavior), “I’m very sorry. Sounds like you tried hard and you can’t get your hair to the way you want it. I wonder if you’re worried about being teased about your hair.” Instead of telling them how they felt and or what they did, you’re wondering out loud. Your child might feel understood and it leaves them in charge of determining how they felt about the situation. Depending on your child’s state, you might even tell a little story about your own bad hair day. What you’re doing here is modeling to your child how to deal with the frustrating feelings.
For some kids empathy and composure might not work in the heat of the moment. A child might suspect that you are trying to calm them down and they aren’t ready yet or your calm voice could be just an additional trigger that might show you don’t really understand their pain. If this sounds like your child, you may want to try matching their reaction with your empathetic response, “We don’t have bananas! Argh!!! What should we do?!” If your child stomp their feet, do it. If they clinch fists, do it too. Then pause and show then that you really care about their concern. If you can catch the first hint of frustration, acknowledge them, and let them know that you are there to help; let them know that you are there for them.
Always be careful with your nonverbal language. Do not make any gestures with your fingers. The pointing might decrease likelihood of compliance because it connotes force or authority. Holding a calm and relaxed body posture communicates respect and attention to your child. Standing sideways rather than directly across from your child can help keep a situation calm and non-adversarial.
Finally, if you know that everybody is safe but you don’t have it in you to engage in de-escalation, you may want to walk away. Sometimes the best you can do is not making the situation worse.
Parenting an explosive child is challenging and exhausting. Meltdowns happen. Try to learn something from it so you can be proactive next time. What triggered your child’s behavior in the first place? What was different about this situation? Were they tired, hungry, or already angry of something else (or hangry), sick, or wanting to be alone? If you can get to the root of the problem and figure out what’s behind the behavior, you can focus on that later. Throwing things, screaming, swearing, wailing on the floor are the symptoms. It’s not effective to treat the symptoms without treating the cause.
Strategies will work better some days than others. While you’re on the path to becoming a world-class negotiator, it’s more important to be proactive. Even though the crisis has been averted, it’s better not to deal with it in the first place.