Handling Meltdowns

Meltdowns are emotional outbursts that happen when children (or adults) are overwhelmed by feelings and they come out in inappropriate ways. They are sometimes referred to as tantrums or blowups and can be very stressful for everyone involved. An understanding of what happens during a meltdown and how to help children behave better can decrease meltdowns or at least make them less intense. Calming the meltdown rather than trying to fix the cause is the fastest and most effective way to stop and prevent meltdowns.

Children have meltdowns for lots of reasons. These include being angry, scared, embarrassed, tired, hungry, or in other states of physical or emotional discomfort. It is rare for young children to misbehave for revenge or to annoy people because they lack the ability to plan and understand others’ reactions. Meltdowns usually are a sign children are under more distress than they can handle. Meltdowns happen even though children really are doing the best they can to behave in the situation. They just do not have the ability to behave better when upset or under stress. However, children need to learn to cope better to decrease meltdowns.

Meltdowns are challenging for us because they can be embarrassing and children can do and say things that are hurtful. Sometimes meltdowns are confusing because we do not know what set them off. They can be scary because of their intensity. Children become very hard to manage during meltdowns. Reason simply does not get through to them. Intense emotions stop the brain from working properly. So, the ability to follow reason or use self-control decreases dramatically during meltdowns. Discipline often does not work because fear of consequences or caregivers’ disapproval intensifies the distress. Or, children may be too upset to care about the consequences in the moment. Harsh discipline sometimes scares a child into stopping the meltdown in the moment, but is not an effective long-term solution.

The priority during meltdowns is to help children calm down. After children are calm, they can learn from instruction, reason, or discipline. This is not giving in to children, it is training them to avoid meltdowns in the future. Children are still responsible for their behavior. Although it can test our patience, the most productive strategy is to wait until children are calm enough to think clearly so they can learn what they need to do differently next time.

Calming children is easier earlier in the meltdown. So, it is helpful to know and watch for warning signs that children are about to meltdown. We might notice a change in breathing, voice, facial expression, or other body language. There might be things that children say when starting to have a meltdown. As soon as the meltdown is recognized, we can start the calming process to get things back on track.

Calming children during meltdowns requires soothing and what works for one child might not work for others. Also, what works for a child at one age or in one situation might not work in others. What does tend to help all children is when we stay calm and kind, even though it is hard. Practicing calming strategies together shows children what we want them to do, but it also helps us stay calm. Using a soft voice, slow movements, not grabbing a child, and having a sympathetic expression helps calm children as well as keeping us calm.

Calming activities include a cool cloth on the face, long slow deep breaths, tensing and relaxing muscles, and holding a favorite stuffed animal or blanket. Validating, acknowledging how the child feels, can be very helpful. Older children might benefit from soothing and reassuring words from a caregiver. Younger children might appreciate being held or rocked. However, for some children a hug is calming, but others might be upset by being held. Similarly, some children calm down using intense physical activity, but others are ramped up by it. We know calming strategies are working when we see children start to relax and return to their usual behavior.

It is best to wait until children are fully calm to address the meltdown or what led up to it. At that point, a wonderful way to start the conversation is by telling children we know they had feelings that were too big to control and that we want to help them learn how to deal with big feelings. Then we can describe appropriate ways to express emotions and make requests. This also is the time for helping children face the situation that caused the meltdown or accept the consequence of their behavior during the meltdown. This might involve trying to make right any harm or damage they caused during the meltdown.

Repeating this process during each meltdown teaches children how to handle intense emotions appropriately, decreasing the likelihood and intensity of future meltdowns. It takes time to learn this skill, just like any other skill. Also, as children’s brains mature, they have an increased ability to use self-control to avoid meltdowns. So, although it is a gradual process, it will get better!

Anxiety in Children

What it Looks Like

Anxiety can look different from one person to the next. Anxiety is excessive worrying or fear, but people, especially children, may have a difficult time expressing those emotions, or they may not even realize that is what they are feeling. As a result, anxiety may not be the obvious culprit, but might look more like an anger problem or an attention deficit issue. Here are some indications of an anxious child:

-Irrational or excessive fear

-Worrying about worry

-Difficulty with transitions or changes in plans

-Anger/irritability

-Withdrawal or Avoidance

-Tantrums

-Trouble concentrating

-Fidgeting or Restlessness

-Difficulty sleeping/fatigue

-Difficulty with the unknown/asking many detailed questions, often about adult issues

-Being very particular/excessively trying to exert control over situations

-Complaining of physical pains, especially stomach aches

Some of these behaviors may be normal if they aren’t causing significant problems, or they may indicate other issues, so it is important to get the opinion of a mental health professional.

Why We Have it

We all experience anxiety from time to time, and we can thank a part of the brain, called the amygdala, for this. The amygdala’s job is to protect us from dangerous situations. When it senses something dangerous (whether real or not) it tells yours body to either get ready for a fight, run away, or freeze. This happens so fast, we often don’t have the chance to tell your brains when there is nothing to be afraid of, and before we know it, there are hormones and adrenaline rushing through us- which can change our breathing, heartbeat, make our muscles tense, make us sweaty or give us a stomach ache.

Think of your anxiety like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm will go off any time there is smoke, whether you just burned a piece of toast, or there is a fully raging fire. Your amygdala may be getting you ready to fight a wild animal, and it doesn’t know that introducing yourself to a new friend is not actually dangerous, it’s just an unfamiliar experience.

So think of your anxiety as your protector, guardian, warrior, or super hero. It wants to keep you safe. Now the only question is, how do you let your protector know when you don’t need protecting?

A Few Strategies for Coping with Anxiety

1. Choose an object to hold your worries: Anxiety will get worse if we just hold onto in and never let it out. Denying fear or never telling anyone how we feel can make it worse, and at times this can turn into anger. It can be helpful to talk to a friend of family member. Other ways to let out our fears would be to write them out. This can be through journaling, or writing down thoughts to keep in a safe container, or destroying them in some way (like ripping or crumbling the paper). We may need an object to hold onto our thoughts and fears for us when they feel overwhelming. This can be a stuffed animal, a “worry stone,” or crafting your own “worry pet” or “worry doll.” Sometimes we need some support in carrying those big feelings.

2. Distract Yourself:  Sometimes, it may be necessary to simply get your mind off of your problems. This can be done in many ways. What makes you happy? Listening to music, dancing, going for a walk, spending time with loved ones, engaging in something artistic, or exercising are a few examples. The key to making this strategy work is mindfulness. This means, that when you mind wanders back to those fears or unpleasant thoughts, bring your focus and attention back to your activity and think about what it is you like about it and engage your senses. For example, if you are out for a walk and your worry about that upcoming test creeps up, bring your attention back to the sound of birds singing.

3. Breathing and Bubbles: Blowing bubbles is a fantastic way to focus on your breathing and let your fears float away! Imagine that you are a bubble. As you breathe in, focus on your body being filled with air, just like a bubble. As you slowly blow out your breath, feel your body relax. Focus simply on the bubble as it gets bigger, until it leaves the wand and floats through the air. After you have practiced this exercise a few times, you can try this even if you don’t have bubbles with you by simply imagining your thoughts as bubbles floating away while you breathe in and out.

Validation

Youth who struggle with intense emotions tend to respond well when caregivers use validation. Validation acknowledges thoughts and feelings regardless of whether they are logical or accurate. By acknowledging these feelings while still requiring children to act appropriately, youth learn the difference between what they feel and what they do.  It helps them learn to identify, appropriately express, and effectively deal with emotions. This leads to self-confidence, better relationships, and better behavior. When caregivers use validation, youth are more likely to open up to and accept guidance from the caregiver. Emotions become less intense because the youth feels heard without having to escalate the emotional intensity.

Validating is when caregivers let youth share their thoughts and feelings and the caregiver acknowledges those thoughts and feelings without criticism, judgement, or rejection. It is not comforting or praising the youth, although those can be helpful, too. It is not agreeing with the youth or like the youth’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. It also is not letting the youth do whatever he or she wants. It simply is letting the youth know you understand what he or she is feeling is real to him or her in that moment. That helps the youth learn that emotions and behavior are separate and that emotions are not wrong, but actions can be wrong and thoughts can inaccurate even though they feel very real. It is essential to teach youth how to appropriately express and cope with those emotions, regardless of the caregiver’s perception of their accuracy.

Validation can be difficult, particularly in the heat of the moment. It can be an effective way to support youth and to model effective interpersonal skills for them to learn. When caregivers validate youths’ feelings, it opens the door to teaching children how to effectively cope with feelings without having to change the situation or fix the “problem.” This is important because many times in life upsetting situations cannot be changed or fixed. Validation does not involve talking children out of feelings because denying feelings tends to cause them to come out in other, unhelpful, ways rather than effectively dealing with them head on. Validating and then letting youth work things out teaches them that we have faith in their coping abilities so they grow in their confidence.

Validation requires giving your full attention. This includes removing distractions, making eye contact, nodding your head, and other ways of showing that you are really listening. Validation involves reflecting back what you see and hear. That is, commenting on what you are hearing and observing such as through saying, “It sounds like …” “It seems…” “What I’m hearing…” Validation also involves trying to state what the child is feeling and wanting. Really try to put yourself in the youth’s shoes and observe what the child is saying and doing in light of what you know about the youth. Putting a name to feelings and needs or talking about what the youth wants even if it is impossible shows you understand and provides a foundation for possible future problem solving. It is okay to ask questions to make sure caregivers understand the youth’s perspective or to allow the youth to provide correction when the caregiver misunderstands. That is how communication is learned. Caregivers can let the youth know that the emotions are okay and make sense in that situation. This is acceptance that allows the youth to begin to deal with the emotions in a healthy, effective way. Validation also involves showing your concern and that you are empathizing or experiencing the emotion along with them. It is okay to even mention having felt similarly or dealt with similar situations, although the focus should stay on the youth. Validation is most effective when done with genuineness and realness. Emotions do not always resolve quickly and youth pick up on adults being fake, which is not validating.