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What NOT To Do When Your Child Is Melting Down

Whether your child is in the threenage years or the teenage years or somewhere in between, you are likely to encounter an overflow of emotions that leads to yelling and tears.  As parents we are often overwhelmed and respond out of instinct with a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. I would like to share three reactions to avoid and three tools from emotion coaching to use when your child is melting down.

Shaming

Avoid negative labels and language when your child is upset. These labels lead to shame, which is that feeling that they are bad and incapable of doing the right thing. Shame shuts down the learning centers of the brain and activates the same part of the brain responsible for responding to danger.

When your child is melting down, move toward empathy. Understand their perspective and help them identify what they might be feeling. When they can identify their own emotions and feel understood, then they will have the mental space to understand the feelings of another person.

Yelling

We yell when we don’t feel heard and when we feel we are losing control of a situation. When your child is upset, you may feel frustrated, angry, or annoyed and resort to yelling as an attempt to stop the tantrum. In reality it may actually escalate their emotional response or leave them quiet but feeling unheard and uncared for, eroding their ability to feel safe in the relationship.

Instead of yelling, co-regulate with your child. Co-regulation involves modeling emotional self regulation with our children. There are many ways to do this. It might be as simple as offering a hug or practicing calming breaths together. When your child is calm, talk with them about what feels most soothing for them and then resource that when they are upset.

The beautiful thing about co-regulation is that while your child is practicing self regulation skills, you are finding your own calm in the midst of the storm. You will feel more positive about your responses and be building a healthier, closer relationship with your child.

Rescuing

Avoid rescuing your child by giving in to the thing that triggered the tantrum. This will only reinforce that they are unable to manage difficult emotions.

Instead of rescuing, hold space for their emotions and create safety as they express them. You might say,  “I know you are angry. I can’t let you hit me but would it help to have a hug or squeeze this pillow?” You are offering empathy while setting boundaries for their and your safety.

Holding space just means to accept emotions without judgment. This does not means we don’t help our children to challenge the beliefs leading to their emotional response. It simply means that empathy must come before the cognitive work can begin. Holding space also means we don’t need to rush to fix the situation or offer solutions. Even as adults this kind of response from others can leave us feeling unheard. Children whose parents can hold space for them will learn that they can manage upsetting situations while also making room for the emotions of others.

If you would like to learn more about emotion coaching, consider starting with one of these resources:

  • The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection by Brene Brown (audio talk)
  • The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel
  • Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottmann

Tell us in the comments how you have implemented these strategies.

Hannah Lindsay, MSW, LCSW provides individual and family therapy — including therapy for kids and teens — in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in the State of Virginia. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Hannah!