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How To Help a Child in the Middle of a Meltdown

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Here’s the thing about children’s melt-downs: they don’t know how to stop them.

Once a child loses control and is on the floor screaming or throwing blocks around the room or biting her sister and breaking the skin, it’s all over. Her emotional control has fallen off the cliff and she has no way of getting it back on her own. What you do next is the most important thing.

Most of us react by melting down ourselves. We scream, we hit, and we lock our kids in their bedrooms. We act like children. None of this helps a child find her calm again. Most of this simply escalates things. Instead of fixing the day and helping to make certain this sort of episode becomes less frequent, we ruin the day and make certain this sort of episode will happen again tomorrow.

If we want something to change, we can’t do the same things we’ve been doing. We have to show our child techniques for regaining control.

This is exactly the sort of training provided to children in Head Start who have been identified as suffering from early trauma. Children who are angry at the world, who have been hurt deeply even as preschoolers, need help to find their emotional center. Head Start has created a program designed to actively teach calming skills. We parents of less injured children can do the same thing.

It helps to recognize that young children really don’t know how to calm themselves. We see this in babies, who are very difficult to soothe once they’ve reached the screaming-meanies phase. But toddlers and preschoolers (and even older kids) still haven’t mastered self-soothing skills either. They need our help. Here’s what to do.

  1. Give a child the gift of your calmness. Your child is standing on an emotional ledge, ready to jump. Any good negotiator knows you don’t yell at someone on the edge, you talk with him calmly. You lend your own calmness to someone who doesn’t have enough. So take a deep breath. Speak calmly and slowly. Helping your child means giving her your quiet strength.
  2. If you need to restrain your child, do so with love, not anger. Enfold your child securely but gently. Keep in mind that you are giving calmness, not fighting. This is not easy to do. It will take all your physical strength and your emotional control to keep a child from hurting himself or others while not hurting him yourself.
  3. As your child quiets, direct her attention to her heart rate. Show her how to take her pulse at her wrist or to feel her heart. Notice how fast it’s racing. Challenge your child to getting her heart rate down.
  4. Show your child how to take deep breaths. Do this together. Three or four calming breaths will steady her pulse and help her to settle. She will still be shaky, so don’t be too quick to ask questions. Let her take the time she needs to get back to calm.
  5. Congratulate your child on settling himself. Put off asking what set him off until later; probing into this now make reignite his anger and upset. Instead, suggest a different activity altogether. He may want to go lie down for a few minutes in a quiet place, or he may want to watch TV for a little bit. If he was really out of control, he’ll need some time to feel himself again.

If you are consistent with this pattern, your child will eventually learn how to calm herself without your intervention. It will take time. But even in the short term, you and your child will both feel better about the day and you both will feel like you’ve grown emotionally and in your shared relationship.

A meltdown doesn’t have to derail everything. It doesn’t have to be an everyday occurrence. Take the time to teach your child another way to be.




© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.