Handling Your Kid's Meltdowns Without Melting Down
Courtesy of Mightier
Most parents know that kids’ emotional outbursts are like dirty diapers and kitchen messes—they just come with the territory. But one too many meltdowns in the grocery store checkout line will send even the most patient, even-keeled parent into a fugue state.
When I’m at my wits’ end, when I’ve simply run out of ways to cope with my daughter’s behavior, I feel a nearly irrepressible urge to yell “calm down!” The problem is, those words usually make the situation worse. When you say “calm down” to someone, what they hear is that the way they’re acting is “too much.” That can be a tough message to receive, especially for a kid.
With 20 years of training in the mental health field, I’ve spent countless hours helping adults and children learn how to better regulate their emotions. Still, I sometimes struggle to keep my cool when I’m juggling a million different things or when my kid is acting out. Through my professional practice and my personal life, I’ve come to believe that all emotions—even the “negative” ones—are an integral part of being human. The challenge is learning how to channel big emotions productively, which is something that kids (and many adults) find quite difficult. With this in mind, I’ve come up with a few strategies for dealing with your kid’s emotional outbursts:
Start early. I recommend that parents begin verbally acknowledging their children’s emotions when they reach toddler age. For example, if your kid gets really upset when a sibling steals their toy, try saying, “Wow, that sure made you angry.” This can help them connect their feelings to outside circumstances and start to see that they have control over how they express emotions. In this scenario, you could suggest that your kid calmly ask for their toy back rather than screaming or hitting.
Ask questions. One lesson I’ve learned as a parent and practitioner is that children possess the tools to understand their emotions but are rarely asked to self-reflect. When my daughter is having one of those moments, instead of scolding her or telling her to knock it off, I’ll ask her a question: Why do you think you’re feeling this way? What do you think would make you feel better? Questions like these give her the opportunity to pause and think about what she really needs in the moment.
See what the body is saying. As I tell all of my clients, the body is a proxy for our emotional state. When we’re angry or upset, our heartbeats quicken, our muscles tense up, and we become flush because blood is rushing to our heads. You’re probably familiar with these symptoms, but your child may not be. The next time your kid throws a tantrum, ask them to check in with their bodies. After they’ve described the physical sensations they’re experiencing, have them take a few deep breaths and see if that helps them feel calmer and more in control. Recognizing this mind-body connection is key to emotional self-regulation. Biofeedback video games are also a great way for kids to externalize this mind-body connection. I frequently recommend Mightier, a program developed out of Boston Children's Hospital with a library of biofeedback games, to the families I work with. As kids play the games they wear heart rate monitor controls the difficulty of the game. As heart rates go up, the games get harder to play. The more kids learn to stay cool, the more they succeed in the games.
Set an example. “Do as I say and not as I do.” Do you really think kids buy this? If you want your child to improve their self-regulation skills, you have to practice what you preach. Recently, I found myself being really short with my daughter. When I realized that I was in a bad mood because I had a lot on my plate at work, I apologized to her. I said, “Momma must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I’m sorry for being so cranky.” In this situation, I modeled how to be aware of and acknowledge your emotions and find a way to move past them.
Practice acceptance. Living a full life means experiencing all of the emotions along the spectrum—from happy to sad, angry to joyful, bored to overstimulated. For this reason, I sometimes just have to accept that my daughter is feeling a lot. And in some situations, big emotions are completely appropriate. When your best friend is being bullied, for example. Or when you have to put down the family dog. Being overcome with emotion in situations like this is nothing to fix—it just means you’re human.
Erina White, PhD, MPH, MSW is the Clinical Services Director and VP of Parent Services for Mightier. She is a clinical researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, therapist in private practice, and holds faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School, University of New Hampshire and Simmons School of Social Work. She is also a mom. Mightier uses the power of bioresponsive games to help kids build and practice calming skills to meet real-world challenges.