What Every Mum Needs to Know About Meltdowns


Kid having a tantrum
Feeling comfortable with all our emotions makes us happier. If we are not comfortable being around our child when they are emotional, then we have work to do. I cannot tell you how often I overhear:

  • Nobody wants to hear that sort of noise
  • You are embarrassing me
  • Stop crying or I will…..(threaten to take away a privilege)
  • That’s enough now or I’ve had enough of this nonsense or I’ve had enough of you now
  • I don’t like it when you are like this

You get the idea. When your child is vomiting their emotions all over you, it’s quite tempting to get them to stop. However, the more you try and get them to stop, the more emotional they become. It’s a fairly knee jerk reaction to something that is annoying us. You know like a fly buzzing around our face. We swat it away. What you resist persists, so guess what? The fly keeps coming back to buzz about a bit more.

When you have a knee-jerk reaction to your child’s emotional outbursts, it’s helpful to sit with and look at what is making you react in that way. It could be:

  • You feel out of control
  • You are frustrated as you can’t fix it
  • You can’t bear to see your child upset
  • It brings to your attention something you find upsetting
  • It makes you wrong and you can’t stand that
  • You are embarrassed
  • You feel uncomfortable or scared of some emotions

Or it could be something completely different. What is it for you?

The Language of Emotions

Emotions are your personal messenger or your internal Sat Nav system to guide you through life. They tell you when you are in danger and keep you safe from harm. They let you know when something doesn’t feel right or is not aligned with your values. They allow you to experience the ups and downs of everyday life and to express yourself as the wonderful human being that you are.

When we get overwhelmed by our emotions, we are unable to moderate our behaviour, we experience Emotional Dysregulation. This is what happens when your child has a meltdown. It is not your child being naughty, difficult, a problem or disobedient. This is your child telling you that something is decidedly off with him and that he needs help to sort it out.

All emotions are allowed

Unexpressed emotions manifest in all sorts of ways; ways that signal that you are uncomfortable and in some circumstances in pain. Think of an addict that numbs out their big emotions with their drugs or alcohol. They learn how to block out their emotions. Unprocessed emotions can manifest in our bodies as physical illness or in children, maladaptive behaviour.

Emotional intelligence is being able to regulate our emotions in healthy ways that do not harm us or others. We don’t always need to act on them. Instead we can learn to recognise them, feel them, express them, learn from them and move on from them. Emotions come in different shapes and sizes.

Primary emotions are our automatic response to a situation. They are unthinking, instinctive animal responses. Common primary emotions are fear, sadness and happiness although we may feel them as secondary emotions too. Primary emotions are transient which means they eventually disappear, but what complicates matters, is the secondary emotion which makes it harder to understand what is going on. 

Secondary emotions follow primary emotions and may be caused by them or by a previous experience. Your child falling over, may cause you to feel fear (primary emotion). However, that quickly turns to anger as your body kicks into defend and protect your child. You may even shout at your child for not paying attention, but you are not angry you are scared. Often beneath anger lies fear or sadness. This is why when I coach I see a lot of angry boys as society deems is unacceptable to openly express their fear or sadness. In a previous experience situation, you may have been frighted on a turbulent plane before and so these emotions kick in whenever you think about getting on one again.

Mixed Emotions come about when you think of a loved one who has passed on your birthday or around Christmas time. You experience happiness for the occasion but it may be tinged with sadness that person is not there to celebrate with you.

Respond not React

Emotions are contagious. Have you ever noticed how being around a positive person starts to rub off on you? Well this is the same for other emotions too – anger breads anger. You are a role model for your child. Becoming aware of your emotions is the first step and to create awareness, you need to start to monitor what happens in emotional situations for you.

You do not have to attend every argument you are invited to!

First of all notice how you feel in your body. Where is that feeling and what is going on in your mind to produce the feeling. Where does it come from? When have you felt this feeling before? Take some deep breaths or even leave the situation (in coaching we call this breaking state and it’s a bit like rebooting your brain) to compose yourself. You need to keep your head as your child is telling you that it needs you to step up to the plate and help them take care of something they are struggling with.

It’s also helpful if you are able to:

  • Stop the blame game and pay attention to the sub text of your child’s behaviour. Usually underneath there are big feelings that need to come out
  • Not take it personally – everybody is doing the best they can in any given moment
  • Don’t assume the worst – look at the whole situation with an open mind. Be careful that you are not projecting your fear  onto your child
  • Allow all emotions without trying to fix them

Most of the time, once kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate. This leaves an opening for problem solving. Sometimes, kids can do this themselves.  Sometimes, they need your help to brainstorm.  But resist the urge to rush in and handle the problem for them unless they ask you to; that gives kids the message that you don’t have confidence in his ability to handle it himself.’~Dr. Laura Markham

  • Watch your judgement – say what you see instead of casting judgement and making your child ‘good or bad’ right or wrong’ . You might say: ‘This is a very messy room and I can’t see your school uniform. How will you get ready for school in the morning?’ instead of : ‘For Gods sake how many times do I have to ask you to pick your school uniform up off the floor? You are so messy and this place is a tip. I’m sick of telling you.’ When you are getting into stuck record mode, you are not getting through to your child and you need to re-think your game plan. 
  • See emotional situations as ways for you and your child to learn more about each other and to problem solve as a team (you are on the same side right!) to get to a win/win for everybody.
  • Watch your body language – pointy fingers, scowling faces, standing tall over your child especially when they are little is very scary. Children who become afraid of angry parents are less likely to share with them anything that they think their parents will be cross with them for. They could also start to tell more fibs.

Put It To The Test

This may take some practice, but the more you get comfortable with your emotions and the more you are able to regulate them, the more your child will too. Next time you child is having a meltdown, see how you get on with this:

  1. Stay calm – take deep breaths and notice what you are feeling
  2. Compose yourself. If you are unable to do this, you have unprocessed emotions that you need to address with a third person (friend, therapist, partner or whomever you would share your stuff with)
  3. Empathise and put yourself in your child’s shoes – are they tired, hungry, afraid, sad? What is going on for them?
  4. Allow all emotions – they are energy passing through the body and you can help your child get them out
  5. Give the emotion a name and say what you see – ‘You really wanted that ice cream didn’t you and now you are sad because you can’t have it.’
  6. Listen and don’t fix – let your child cry and shout and scream. Make sure they are safe and not hurting you or themselves.
  7. Reassure them that you are there for them and you want to help them with the feelings. Children need to know you can hold their strongest of emotions. ‘So we will still be Ok after this has happened?’
  8. Validate how they are feeling – you don’t need to agree with them. The example below is a good way to show you how you can do this. You are your child’s mirror and you reflect back to them who they are. It helps them to have a clear sense of self.
  9. Find a way to help your child get that emotion out – hug, make them laugh, tickle, punch pillows, run around the garden.
  10. When your child is calm again, talk about what happened and brainstorm a way to deal with that situation differently next time.  Remember your reflective listening which is listening without fixing.

thekidsneedlovethemostStay connected to your child

Can you put yourself in your child’s shoes when they are sobbing at at tea time and refusing to come to the table because their dinosaur’s head has fallen off? I know at this point you are thinking (or maybe even saying): ‘Don’t be silly, stop crying. I will fix it. Don’t cry! Eat your tea.’ Whilst that is quite true for you, it isn’t for your child. Your child continues to wail inconsolably about his dinosaur and you continue to become increasingly irritated ‘You are not listening. Eat your tea or else it will be bed and bath time for you.’ Right there in an instant, you have just cut off connection. The love support machine was switched off. In a child’s mind, it’s like: ‘If Mummy doesn’t understand, then who will?’ Your child is desperately sad about their dinosaur and it helps if you can empathise, label that feeling and play it back to them. ‘Oh no! You’re so sad. Look at you, you are crying. Your poor dinosaur, his head is broken and he can’t see to help you eat your tea!’ (hopefully cue laughter a my rather rubbish attempt at humour. Kids find me funny. What can I say?!)  ‘Here, let me fix it for you while you eat your tea and then he can watch you eat your tea before we put you both in the bath.’ It really pays to be able to help your child act through their emotions and let them out. Emotions are energy, they need an exit otherwise they will turn into maladaptive behaviours which makes life miserable.

A Little Word About Punishment

Punishment exacerbates big scary emotions in children. With strong-willed children, it can create power struggles. Punishment can make children defensive and therefore even more uncooperative than before. It may stop unacceptable behaviour in the short-term, however long term, it can create more aggression, shame, fear, resentment and anger – all which go unprocessed. We need to break this cycle.

What do you do when you punish? Do you  confiscate a favourite toy or game? Do you bring bedtime forward? Do you withdraw privileges like special time together or days out? Do you banish your child to another room to be alone and think about the error of their ways? The subtext of any kind of punishment is – disapproval, unacceptable and shame. Yes you want your child to know the difference between right and wrong, but you don’t need to shame them into it.

I agree with Dr. Laura Markham’s Way of setting limits with natural consequences as this allows you to stay connected to your child and empathise with how they are feeling. Dr. Laura is a fan of Time-ins instead of Time Outs. What do you think? You can read more about how to do that  here 

If you found this article useful and you want to know how to pour more love and happiness into your family, sign up for my FREE download here. You can also come over and say hi on Facebook where there is a community of supportive Mums and Dads who are in the same boat as you.

Image credits: © Ilike – Fotolia.com

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