Young children are prone to emotional meltdowns, which can leave you feeling exhausted and like you are failing as a parent. They can experience such overwhelmingly strong feelings that they have no idea what the meltdown is about, where it came from, or even whether it is actually theirs. So what can you do to help them understand what they are feeling and bring the temperature down so both of you are less stressed? Below you'll find 8 things to try!
Denying your child a biscuit just before tea may suddenly reduce them to a desperate screaming heap, tugging at your legs. Tantrums and meltdowns are upsetting and exasperating, but they are a normal part of development It doesn’t mean your child is needy or spoiled and you are NOT failing as a parent!
Children’s brains are still under development. And given that most of us are still working on our own ‘emotional regulation’, we need to cut our children a bit of slack!
The ability to process and manage emotions, without exploding or withdrawing in some way, takes time and attention to develop. But it’s so worth it for all involved. Build that emotional literacy and you have a skill for life. One which will help you in your relationships and work. And it will also give you a smoother ride when it comes to the teenage years where hormones rule! So how can we help our kids develop self control and learn not to turn into mini tyrants at the flick of a switch?
Accepting, naming and labelling feelings (including positive ones) is a first step towards helping children learn to deal with strong emotions. This applies to all children, regardless of temperament, but is particularly important for children who are impulsive and/or more sensitive.
8 ways to help children deal with strong emotions
Stay calm yourself and use a low reassuring voice – it may feel as if they are trying to make things difficult for you by wailing loudly when your child’s favourite biscuit breaks. But at that moment it’s big thing for them! Tempting as it might be, try not to get sucked in to being stroppy too!
- Pause, and listen – give them a moment to unscramble their troubled brain. They won’t be able to hear much of what you say until they have calmed down.
- Acknowledge their feelings. So often we can dismiss children’s feelings by telling them not to be so silly, that they are over-reacting, behaving badly; or by simply ignoring their feelings altogether. The trouble with doing this is that it inadvertently gives your child the message that how they feel doesn’t matter and that their emotions should be hidden away. And then they may come out explosively in an uncontrolled way. Instead, by listening and paying attention to their feelings, you can help them learn to manage and understand their emotions better. By talking about strong feelings, and giving them a name, your child will build their emotional intelligence, so vital as a life skill. You might say something like, “I can see that made you are really sad/cross/upset/mad" showing that you understand how your child is feeling, and in doing so your child learns the language of feelings.
- Set a boundary. It’s OK to be cross, but not OK to hit your brother.
- Predict success “I bet next time that happens you might be able to count to 5 and stay calm!”
- ‘The real menace in dealing with a five year old is that in no time you start to sound like a five year old.’ Remember that your child models your behaviour, so if you get shouty and have a tantrum too, that is what your child will do next time. We too need to be able to stand back and think “I can cope – I know he’ll grow out of this phase”, “It will pass!”. We can even teach our children to start to use these sorts of ‘coping thoughts’ . You can help them practice this approach in situations they often find difficult and develop their resilience by asking “what could you do next time?… What else? ….And what would happen if you did that? ….How could you stay calm?”
- Teach your child the ‘Snail Technique’. When they are really upset or overwhelmed they can imagine they are a snail and retreat into their shell until they have calmed down.
- Look out for moments when your child has stayed calm in the face of provocation or didn’t go off on one when they couldn’t have their favourite cereal – whatever it is – and remained calm. Praise them for this! You may need to watch closely for these small improvements, but do take the opportunity to say you noticed them staying calm. This is a small step in the right direction, nothing close to that perfect child you may have had in mind. Our children lay down a template of what you value and will graduate towards it. Even if it takes, well… years.
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