I’m sure you can relate to the stress of when your child melts down. Sometimes it seems like it’s come out of nowhere and can ramp up from 0-100 in 10 seconds. It can get overwhelming to both your child and yourself making it difficult to stay calm. Every child’s temperament is different, so some kids have much stronger or more frequent meltdowns then others, but with that said, a melt down is a melt down and they can be really hard to navigate, especially if you are already feeling stressed, tired or overwhelmed.
One thing that really helped me was to learn a little about how the brain works, so I’m going to share that with you and tell you why it helps. The downstairs part of the brain is the part that is pretty developed when a child is born. This is where your emotions – fear, sadness, anxiety, love and other emotions live. The upstairs brain is much less developed at birth. This is where we do our problem solving, rational thinking, considering consequences, looking at various perspectives, self regulation and other executive functioning.
The downstairs brain is also where your instincts to protect yourself live. When you sense some kind of threat or danger, your adrenalin can ramp up, and you fight, run away or shut down and freeze. So as you can see, there is a lot of primitive, emotional stuff happening in the downstairs brain.
Now why would this knowledge help in dealing with a meltdown? Well, when a child is melting down, they are emotional; therefore they are activating their downstairs brain. When a child is highly emotional, their downstairs brain basically hijacks their upstairs brain therefore making it incredibly difficult for them to calm themselves down or think rationally. To make things worse, if we start getting upset or try to problem solve or rationalize with them when they’re in this downstairs brain emotional state, we’re going to pretty much get no where, and can even escalate the meltdown. So what do you do?
What I learned is that the first thing you need to do when your child is in this highly emotional state, is to co-regulate with them. Co-regulation is when your child feeds off your energy or the environment around you. What that means is we do our best to stay calm and empathetic (and yes, I know sometimes this seems so difficult), and connect with our child so they feel safe. I often will hold my daughter or put my hand on her arm or back if she lets me to help ground her. I pay attention to my breathing and make sure it’s nice and calm. I talk in a soothing voice and validate her feelings. “I can see you’re really upset right now because you have to stop playing.” “You seem really disappointed that you didn’t get the toy you wanted.” By empathizing with her and acknowledging her feelings and why she might be feeling that way, I’m teaching her self awareness and to recognize how’s she’s feeling and why. By staying calm and regulated myself, I’m actually helping her to self regulate and calm herself down through my example. This is called co-regulation. The one thing I’m not doing right away is start problem solving. This can only happen in a productive way when our child has calmed down, and their downstairs brain is no longer in control of their upstairs brain. Once they are calm, then we can start talking to them about what happened, and they will be more receptive because they can start accessing their upstairs brain.
I highly recommend two books that talk all about this: The Whole Brain Child and The Yes Brain Child by Dr. Tina Payne Bryson and Dr. Daniel J. Siegel. They go into much more detail. The Whole Brain Child really gets deeper into all of this, and in the book, The Yes Brain Child, they teach you strategies to help your child to be more resilient and have more grit, two qualities which I think are so important.
It is in no way easy to deal with meltdowns, and we are never going to be perfect all the time and apply every strategy we ever learn in every situation. We are human and can just do the best that we can. And remember, if you lose your patients or forget to stay calm, you can always revisit the situation later when both of you are are more grounded, and acknowledge that you got upset too. While you’re both calm, you can then talk more about what happened in a positive, constructive way.