Meltdowns in children are inevitable. Although we’d like to think we could wave a magic wand and extract all forms of emotional dysregulation in children, meltdowns and tantrums are actually a normal and important part of healthy child development. Learning how to support a child during a meltdown isn’t about avoiding meltdowns, it’s about allowing each experience of emotional dysregulation to become a teaching opportunity that will highlight our child’s specific needs and our own reactivity patterns.

Positive parenting offers a wealth of direction in the area of meltdowns. What is positive parenting? This framework is a parenting approach that is philosophically based on the idea that empathy, problem solving and using positive interactions with children are much more effective solutions than repeated yelling or punitive punishment.  More often than not, utilizing positive parenting helps us all leave the table feeling empowered and connected, verses stressed and resentful, even after meltdowns. 

What does a meltdown in a child look like?

A meltdown can take on many forms but oftentimes we see children expressing it through forms of emotional dysregulation and resulting behaviors that society may deem undesirable as a whole.  During and following a meltdown, it’s easy to get so focused on those “undesirable” behaviors that we neglect to see the reasoning behind them.  When a child is having a meltdown, their actual nervous system is dysregulated. This leads them to get stuck in either a state of chaos (yelling, anxious, screaming) or rigidity (digging in heels, frozen “deer in headlights”, demanding things a certain way). If they are lucky, they’ll show this dysregulation in more socially acceptable forms like anxiety, crying, whining. We tend to want to comfort kids that seem scared.  If they’re unlucky, though, they’ll show that they are struggling through non socially acceptable ways like yelling, punching, or other behaviors we would deem as “acting out.”  Psychologists oftentimes say that “behavior is communication”, and these kids who are “acting out” are struggling with nervous system dysregulation as well. It’s a paradigm shifter to realize that, in many instances, your child isn’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time! 

What are the common ages for meltdowns to occur in children?

Children may have regular meltdowns from about 12 months to 4 years old. Oftentimes, when a child begins to learn how to communicate their needs more clearly, they don’t have meltdowns as often. If a child is continuing to have daily meltdowns and tantrums after age 5 or 6, it may be time to assess if they are having some sensory challenges or need additional support. 

Some find it helpful to distinguish between meltdowns and tantrums. Both are developmentally appropriate in the early years but a meltdown is when a child’s nervous system is so dysregulated they cannot soothe themselves. A meltdown usually occurs from sensory input, being overstimulated or fear/anxiety.  A tantrum emerges when a child doesn’t get what they want and so they are making it known, loud and clear, that they are unhappy about it. 

When a child is having a meltdown, their fragile nervous systems need to borrow the adult’s nervous system for a moment, through soothing behaviors like getting on or below the child’s eye level, talking in a low and soothing tone, hugging the child if needed or, if that’s triggering them more, standing nearby with a calming presence.  Although it’s difficult to keep calm at times, the last thing a child in a meltdown needs is a parent having their own.  The child already feels unsafe in their own body so a parent who has lost their own emotional regulation will lead the child to either communicate louder as a plea for help, or shut down completely as a defense mechanism. In the interest of long term mental health, shutting down when faced with difficult emotions may become a coping skill that turns maladaptive when it results in stuffed down feelings that become inaccessible. Co-regulating with our child in the early years teaches them how to move through difficult emotions in a healthy way.

What happens when a kid is having a meltdown and they are doing things that could be hurtful to others like kicking or hitting?

Sometimes we have to set spatial boundaries in meltdowns and tantrums, especially if the child is hitting or otherwise reacting in a way that could be harmful.  Reminding the child that they are safe is the first step.  But just like they need to be safe, so does everyone else, including the parent.  A child hits or kicks or otherwise acts in a harmful way because they feel out of control. Not only that, but many times children are just beginning to learn how to use their bodies.  How do we set a limit in these moments? A parent could say something like, “I notice you’re having some big feelings and it seems like you’re out of control.  I am in control, though and I’m here to help you.”  This is a much different approach than the ‘ol, “You better quit you’re crying before I give you something to cry about.”   

The latter iron fist approach may stop a behavior temporarily but it also damages the relationship… and children learn how to SELF-regulate from first CO-regulating with their parents or caregivers while in relationship. If we consistently break the bond in that relationship by punitive punishment or ignoring our child, we are taking away the very thing that helps them learn how to self-soothe for the future. The single most important part of teaching a child how to self-regulate is by co-regulating with them in early childhood. The mirror neurons in their brain pick up on our reactions to model them. Parent-child interaction therapy teaches parents to “Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.” Don’t react by matching the heat,  respond and set the temperature in the environment around you.

Next time your child is having a meltdown or tantrum, try this: Sit below eye level with a relaxed posture and lower your tone of voice.  This posture activates a different neural network than towering above and yelling (in both our brains and our children’s brains).  Functional MRI scans of the brain show that repeated experiences of feeling safe in childhood soothe our brain and wire it in a way that actually builds the middle prefrontal cortex. What is the medial pre-frontal cortex responsible for? Insight, empathy, executive functioning skills, attuned communication, and flexibility. It’s hard to argue these are traits we all want our children to develop. 

The word “discipline” means “to teach”.  What are some ways we can utilize these experiences to teach our children?

We connect before we correct.  Only after we’ve connected, it’s time to set appropriate boundaries. When a child is in a meltdown, their brain is scanning the environment for a sense of safety. They cannot hear your correction until they feel safe. As a young child, their relationship (connection) with you provides that felt sense of safety.  Their brains can better process what you have to say after you’ve connected with them and entered into their experience so they don’t feel alone. As they get older, they start to internalize this skill and soothe themselves, connect with their inner voice and become more self-directed.  It starts with caregivers modeling this. It is both sobering and empowering to remember that “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice”. 

What is the purpose of emotions?

It is possible to allow our children’s emotions to run it’s course while setting appropriate behavior boundaries.  This requires a shift in goal setting. We shift our focus from trying to get them to stop crying right away into teaching them that they can BOTH learn to feel their emotions AND act in ways that aren’t hurtful. When we immediately try to shut down emotions, we inadvertently teach children that emotions are so powerful and chaotic they can overrule them.  Instead, we want to teach them how to let emotions have their proper place in their lives.  Think of it this way: emotions are great messengers but awful masters.

 Ultimately, this approach to emotional expression teaches our children they can feel sad without feeling despair, anger without acting in rage, temporarily envious without tearing another down out of jealousy.  Sometimes, especially in faith environments, we teach children to avoid the emotion instead of teaching them how to let it inform them.  Sad? Maybe you need to grieve a loss and release that to Jesus.  Angry? Maybe you feel something was unjust and you can learn how to communicate your need. Jealous? This could be an area in your life or calling of untapped potential. When we allow God to enter into the emotion instead of avoiding it, He can show us the purpose of it.

How Do We Set Boundaries with our Children?

So what’s next after we’ve connected? We’ve validated the emotion and now it’s time to set a boundary and provide choices.  Emotionally responsive parenting is not about being permissive. Boundaries help kids feel safe.  Especially in the younger years, setting the boundary can be as simple as reminding a child that what they are doing is not for it’s intended purpose.  For example: Hands aren’t for hitting, people aren’t for hurting, and dessert is for after dinner.  Once we’ve set the boundary, we provide choices:

“You can choose to use your hands to go draw on that paper or give me a hug.’

“You can choose dessert of fruit or ice cream after your meal.”

Make sure both choices are ones you, the parent, can tolerate.   This process of giving choices empowers children to know that although there are things they cannot do, they still have a level of autonomy and control in their lives (which is what most tantrums are about in the most foundational sense.)

Are you afraid of being judged when your child is having a meltdown?

Parenting in this brain-based way means we are working with our God designed nervous system, not against it.  It also requires us to stop worrying about what other people think. Next time you struggle with the hot eyes of onlookers while your child is having a tantrum or a meltdown, attempt to shift your perspective. Stop trying to be seen as a good parent and instead, focus on being the parent your child needs in that moment. You may never see those judging onlookers from the store again, but whether you respond to your child with connection or control— that has a longer term impact that directly effects your family unit.

Most of us, both kids and parents, aren’t taught how to regulate our emotions so parents and kids struggle with this process. If you haven’t parented this way in the past, offer yourself grace. The great news is that it’s NEVER too late to begin to support your children (and yourself) in this way.  If you’re looking for a therapist to help you parent your child with connection and compassion, take our free assessment today.