Top 3 things to do when your child is anxious, emotional, or having a meltdown
Managing emotional moments with your child can be one of the hardest things as a parent. There is an innate part of us that is triggered when our kid is melting down. We just want them to stop crying. To stop hurting. To stop screaming. To stop feeling anxious. It is our nature as parents to want to protect them – and frankly to get back to feeling peaceful!
I spend a lot of time in my therapy room talking with parents about how to manage meltdowns from the 2-year-old to the 17-year-old. Here are the top 3 things I say to parents over and over again:
- Recognize your own needs. It may not be easy to hear, but often the meltdown is, at least, in part due to the parent’s under- or over-reaction to a particular situation. As parents, we struggle with our own emotions of frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, hurt, or anger, among others. Sometimes those emotions may be because of something our child did – and sometimes they may be because of things outside of our role as a parent. For instance, you may be disappointed because of something that happened at work (e.g., being passed up for a promotion, hard conversation with a customer, etc.).
Remember that your child is ALWAYS watching and listening and learning from you. She is waiting to see how you handle those challenging situations so she can learn how to handle them in her own life. He is watching your face and your body to see what you do when you are upset.
That means, you have to be purposeful with how you express emotions. During a calm moment, create a list of the things that are important to you as a parent as you think about emotions. Do you want your child to be able to talk openly about his/her emotions? Is yelling acceptable? Is cursing acceptable? Clearly outline what is and is not acceptable regarding emotional expression.
Then – MODEL this every time you become emotional in your own life. Notice, this does not mean to be emotionless around your children. It means to model the values you hold for your family in a meaningful way to teach your child how to behave.
The other aspect of recognizing your own needs is that sometimes, your child’s emotional outburst is not really about you. It may be about their level of fatigue. It may be about puberty. It may be about their own disappointment and you simply said something that tipped them over the edge. The point is, don’t take their meltdown personally. We all say things we don’t mean when we are upset. Your child is no different. Your goal as a parent is not to take their yelling personally. It is to teach them how to manage their emotions appropriately. If your initial reaction is to be offended and then punish them, it is unlikely you will meet your goal. Instead, take a breath and remember – “This isn’t about me. How can I teach him/her to better express emotion in this moment??”
- Focus on the underlying emotion or message – When it comes to meltdowns, this is the most common strategy I teach to parents. When our kids are exploding with emotion (or “melting down” or “over the edge” or “freaking out” – whatever you call it), having a rational conversation with them is going to be pointless. Or worse, it might make the entire thing even more unbearable!
Your only priority when your child’s emotions are overflowing is to find out what the underlying message is. Don’t focus on WHAT they are saying. Instead, focus on WHY they are saying what they are saying. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Imagine the 6-year-old who was just told she had to go to bed. Immediately, the child shouts, “You never care about me! You never ask me how I’m doing!!!”
- Your initial reaction is likely to be something like, “I do care about you. And I do ask you how you are doing. I asked you after school how your day was!”
- The BETTER reaction is to focus on the underlying emotion or message. WHY is she saying you don’t care about her? In this case, she may be saying that because she is angry or frustrated that she has to go to bed. Instead, we might want to say, “I know you are irritated that you have to turn off your video game and go to bed, but you have to go to bed now. I will come up in 5 minutes to talk about how you feel. Please go to your room and get in the bed.”
Another example is the 14-year-old who has been working on homework for 2 hours and screams in frustration, “I hate science!! I hate Mr. Jackson for assigning this!! I am so stupid!”
- Again, your initial reaction is likely to be something like, “Don’t say that. You know you like science. And you know you aren’t stupid. You got all As and Bs on your last report card!”
- The BETTER reaction is to focus on the underlying emotion or message. WHY is he saying he hates science? In this case, he is likely tired and frustrated both physically and cognitively. You are more likely to be successful at managing this one if you say something like, “I know you are frustrated by this. Let’s work together to figure this out. I know you can do it.”
In both of these situations, do you see how we are focused on the underlying emotion or message?? That will always get us toward the solution sooner than if we only focus on what they are saying.
- Support them. Don’t fix it. And don’t rationalize. – Now that you have learned how to recognize the underlying emotion, the words you choose in your response are critical. There are a few things to remember when your child is highly emotional. First, your goal is to simply support them. Most often, they don’t want us (as parents) to ‘fix it’ for them. They simply want us to listen and honor their emotions. So the way we do this is to say things like, “Tell me more.” Or “I’m listening. What else happened?” Or “Wow that sounds tough. What else did she say?”
Simply show them you are listening and try to get them to continue talking by looking genuinely interested in what they are saying. Furthermore, it will go a long way for you to really try to understand how they are feeling in that moment. While they are talking, consider how you might feel if you were their age experiencing that. Try to simply be empathetic with them.
One of the biggest mistakes when our child is emotional is to use a rational explanation for why they shouldn’t feel that way. Things like, “Oh honey, you know you aren’t stupid. Why would you say that?” or “You know how important you are. You don’t have to worry about them.” Or any other rationalization of why your child shouldn’t feel a certain way is only causing them to feel like their feelings are not valid.
When our kids are emotional, their rational brain is not working. Their emotions have taken over. So rational explanations will never connect with them.
You have to first get them calmed down by listening and showing empathy. THEN, you can have a rational conversation with them to teach them the truth in each situation. If you skip this listening/calming step, your words will not matter with them.
Create a short list of listening phrases you can use with your child when he/she is emotional. Practice using them as often as possible when your child is both emotional and just in everyday conversation. The more practice you get with them, the more natural they will become in the tough situations!