5 reasons your child might be having a meltdown (and how to help)

 In Building Emotional Intelligence, Emotion Regulation for Kids

Children have meltdowns. This is a fact of life. They have immature nervous systems and haven’t yet learned to regulate their emotions or communicate effectively with their words. They need our help to navigate big emotions. But as parents, it’s often difficult to know how to respond to meltdowns. We worry that we may do or say the wrong thing, and accidentally make it worse! 

But if we can stay calm, that’s half the battle won. And with a little bit of know how, we can learn how to navigate meltdowns effectively, and strengthen our relationship with our children at the same time. Here are some common meltdowns we might see from our kids, and some helpful responses to try.

The meltdown: 

Your two year old saw a toy she really wants in the store, and you said no.

How you can help now:

First of all, this is normal and expected. Your toddler is not deliberately trying to embarrass or manipulate you. She is disappointed and letting you know about it the only way she knows how. 

So take a few deep breaths and start by acknowledging how she feels: “You feel sad because mummy said no. You really want that toy. It’s disappointing when you don’t get what you want.” And simply allow her to express how she’s feeling. Stay close, offer a hug, let her know you’re listening. Just be with her – it will pass.

How you can help in the future: 

The only surefire way to avoid a meltdown like this in the future would be to completely avoid the toy aisle! But you can make it easier on yourself by avoiding difficult situations when your child is hungry, or tired, or already irritable. The best “cure” for this type of meltdown is simply the passage of time. She will eventually get better at managing her feelings and learn to communicate more effectively with words.

The meltdown: 

You asked your preschooler to clean up his room at the end of a long day and he started crying hysterically. 

How you can help now:

This kind of meltdown occurs when the demands we place on our children are greater than the resources available to them. In this instance, his resources are low because he is exhausted. His nervous system is already overwhelmed, so your request has triggered his stress response. His “emotional brain” is in control.

Start by helping him to calm down. Get down to his level and look him in the eye. Now ask him to look around the room and name 5 blue things. Then ask him to name 4 red things. Then 3 yellow things, and so on until he gets to one. This exercise engages the rational, “thinking brain” and helps your child switch off the stress response. Once he is calm, you can provide comfort, and he will be able to hear and talk to you again.

How you can help in the future:

If you know your child is tired, try to limit the amount of demands you place on him. Of course, he still needs to behave appropriately. Being tired is not an excuse to do whatever he likes! But does his room really need to be cleaned up right at this moment, or can it wait until morning when he’s had a sleep?

Much of the time meltdowns like this can be avoided if adults have realistic expectations. Just like us, when children are tired, or overstimulated, they become more easily overwhelmed and emotional. The brain needs rest in order to function at it’s best. So ensure your child gets enough rest and adjust your expectations to meet his ability.

The meltdown: 

Your child didn’t get picked for the school soccer team and he is devastated.

How you can help now:

It’s tempting to minimise your child’s feelings in a situation like this, with a comment like, “It’s not so bad” or “Oh well, there’s always next time!”. We often think that if we don’t make a big deal of these things, neither will our child. But it’s important to acknowledge and validate his feelings of rejection and disappointment.

Try saying something like, “I can hear you’re disappointed. I know you were really hoping to make the team”. Offer comfort, and allow your child to express his disappointment. Feeling validated and understood will help him to process and manage his feelings.

How you can help in the future:

Make it safe to fail in your family. Help your children understand that failures are a part of life, and a necessary part of all learning. Acknowledge failures. Embrace mistakes. Talk about what you’ve learnt from them, and how you can use them to improve next time. 

Also focus on encouraging and praising hard work and effort. Focus on the process rather than the end result when it comes to achievements. For example, if your child receives an A, you could say, “You worked really hard on that, and it shows.” 

The meltdown: 

Your daughter has had a fight with her BFF and her friends have told her she’s not welcome to sit with them anymore.

How you can help now:

Start by listening to your child. Ask questions. Reflect back to her what she has said to you. Validate her feelings: “Wow, that must have been hurtful.” It may not seem like a big deal to you, and in time, it probably won’t seem like one to her either. But right now, this is very important to her. So treat it with the importance it deserves.

Often, friendship difficulties resolve themselves without much intervention. A lot of the time, children simply need an opportunity to vent and if you offer some compassion (and an ear), they will work through the issue themselves.

But if your daughter needs a bit more help, it’s ok to offer up some ideas so you can find a solution together. Try role playing and practicing assertive communication. And if you think your child’s perception of the situation may be incorrect, gently ask her if there may be a different way of looking at it, or an alternative explanation.

How you can help in the future:

Keep the lines of communication open with your child. Ensure she feels safe to come to you about any problems she encounters. Speak about friendship and what it means to you, and ask her what it means to her, often. Start with something like, “A true friend is someone who…”. 

You may also like to talk to her about the difference between bullying and being mean. Bullying is repetitive, consistent, intentional and targeted behaviour. If bullying is occurring, this is more likely to need adult intervention, so if you suspect it is bullying, don’t be afraid to advocate for your child. 

The meltdown: 

Your child asks you to read her a story, but you’re busy cooking dinner. She yells that you never have time for her anymore and no one cares about her.

How you can help now:

Resist the urge to jump in and tell her that she’s wrong, or that she’s over reacting. Regardless of how much time you are spending with her, or how much everyone does love and care about her, this is how she feels right now, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

You can validate how she’s feeling, without agreeing with her. Try, “I’m sorry that’s how you feel.” And then open up the lines of communication and give her a chance to talk to you about it. Maybe start with: “Would you like to tell me more?”. Ask her what she needs from you in order to feel differently and see if you can work out a solution together.

How you can help in the future:

It can be difficult to find time in our busy schedules to connect one on one with our children, but it is so important! Think about opportunities you have to fit in individual time with each of your children. It could be something special like a date to the movies or going out to lunch together. Or it could simply be a trip to the shops together to grab some milk.

And when you’re with your kids, try to really be present. Put away your phone and your laptop. Don’t check your emails, or scroll instagram. Just be there. 

Ultimately, meltdowns are an expression of emotion that feels overwhelming for a child. It is a sign that they are struggling to cope with those emotions and need your help. So meeting your child with compassion and empathy, and ensuring they feel heard and understood, is always the most helpful response.

Showing 2 comments
  • Melissa
    Reply

    Thank you Sarah. Very helpful as always

    • Sarah Conway
      Reply

      You’re so welcome Melissa! Glad it was helpful 🙂

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