Do you have a child whose meltdowns leave you emotional depleted and physically drained? Does your child’s sudden angry outbursts leave you wondering what you’ve done wrong in your parenting, and if you’ll even survive until they grow up? Maybe (like me), you dream of a peaceful home bustling with the energy of family members happily interacting with one another, yet ongoing conflict makes you doubt the efficacy of your parenting. After 4 1/2 years of foster parenting, I still frequently wrestle with all these challenges. Nevertheless, I’d like to share what I have learned so far about building emotional self-regulation in children.
Growing up as the oldest of 6 children, I don’t recall any of my siblings acting out with extreme emotions, defiance, or destructive behavior. My parents were good parents whom I admire greatly. However, because their children were fairly well-behaved and self-regulated, I didn’t have a model for handling extreme, out-of-control behavior. When confronted with it, it is unsettling to say the least, and terrifying at the worst.
Children with frequent, angry outbursts and raging meltdowns are not, I guess, the typical parent’s experience. But these experiences are not limited to a specific group of children. Some are strong-willed, some have ADHD. For some, their trouble with self-regulation is associated with autism. Other children deal with ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) or trauma from their past (especially children from foster care). Each child’s situation—and expression—is unique.
There are many resources for helping both parents and children. Therapists, online resources, and other parents with similar struggles can give a lot of insight and strategies for safely and lovingly handling meltdowns. (I have found some resources for parents of autistic children to be helpful, even though none of our children have had that diagnosis. I’ll share these at the end of this post.)
Our family has come a long way in understanding our children’s needs and responding to their meltdowns. Still, even after 4 years of parenting and 3 years working with a therapist, we still have so much to learn. What I have learned through our successes and failures, as well as things our daughter’s therapist taught us, I hope will benefit you and your children, as well.
Even if your children do not exhibit extreme behaviors, some tips could benefit all parents and children. (All of us can benefit from calming influences, self-awareness, and practicing better ways of responding.)
Tips and Suggestions for Building Emotional Self-Regulation in Children
This article will cover some suggestions for preventing meltdowns, as well as for handling things during and after a meltdown. These suggestions are not listed in any particular order, as they will not all apply in every situation.
Meltdowns are displays of emotional dysregulation. Parents can work on building self-regulation while preventing meltdowns, and again in the training time after meltdowns.
Preventing Meltdowns by Supporting Self-Regulation
Some children’s emotional outburst can seem unpredictable, but with careful observation over time, patterns may emerge that will help in preventing some future explosions.
The things we do and learn with our children after a meltdown can help inform what to do in the future to prevent future problems. It’s a constant cycle of learning, both for us and our children.
That said, children and their moods can be unpredictable, so we can’t blame ourselves for every meltdown we fail to prevent.
- Start and end every day—and fill in as many moments in-between—with expressions of love.
- Say “I love you” frequently.
- Hug often.
- Learn your child’s love language, and strive to show love in those ways when possible–even if it’s not your preferred love language.
- Do things throughout the day—especially on busy, hectic days when children may feel lost in the shuffle—to fill up their “love bucket.” You may need to go above and beyond what you think they need, as long as it’s healthy.
Our daughter’s most atrocious behavior occurs when she feels the most unloved. (I didn’t say IS most unloved, but FEELS unloved.) Sometimes she misinterprets our intent and lashes out in unparalleled fury. Other times, after a meltdown, we discover that all she needed was a hug.
Constant reminders of our love can help counterbalance the insecurity of not feeling loved.
Praise Positive Choices and Appropriate Responses
A child who has difficulty managing emotions and communicating needs appropriately will likely encounter constant corrections. When we’re busy, it’s easy to only notice behavior that needs correction, and stay immersed in our own tasks when children exhibit desirable behavior. (It is what we expect, right?) But children need affirmation. They need their good choices to be noticed—they want attention and approval, so give it to them for the right things.
- If your child often acts selfishly but today played nicely with her little brother, then thank her for that.
- If she usually flies off the handle when a task is too difficult, but today took her time to think it through, recognize that effort.
- If she often throws a fit but today told you what was bothering her, praise her for using her beautiful words to communicate what she needed.
Teach Positive Self-Talk
How do you manage when a job is overwhelming? You probably use positive self-talk so automatically that you don’t even think about it. But when children or teens don’t have this skill, simple tasks or life skills can become daunting or even impossible.
Model positive self-talk in real-life situations, or explain your own thought process in terms children can understand. Or, after a meltdown, role-play using words that could have helped the child more successfully handled the situation. Teaching catchy proverbs can be helpful, too, if the child is old enough to understand.
- “This is hard, but I can do it if I keep trying.”
- “This is not my favorite food, but I can still eat a little.”
- “I’m smart, so I can figure this out if I take my time.”
- “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Assure Fresh Air and Exercise
Plenty has been written about the benefits of fresh air and exercise. What I have noticed is that children are happier during the day and settle down more easily at bedtime when they’ve had at least an hour of outdoor play time. I notice the (negative) difference on rainy days when they stay indoors and don’t get out at all.
Even when there is inclement weather (or a quarantine), a quick dash around the yard can do wonders.
Consider Tiredness or Hunger
Sooner or later, children need to learn to do what they are asked regardless of how they feel. However, tiredness and hunger—even if the child does not recognized it at first—often underlie defiance and emotional outbursts. Often some compromises can be made that help prevent a meltdown.
- In homeschooling, if we are nearing lunchtime but I need my daughter to finish an assignment, I might give her a few cheerios or crackers to eat while she finishes her work—not a full snack, just enough to hold her over and let her know I am considering her needs.
- Cleaning up a mess at bedtime (that should have been done earlier) may precipitate a meltdown, so I settle for only requiring dirty clothes be put in the hamper and save the rest for tomorrow.
Identify and Validate Emotions
We all like to feel noticed and understood. I have seen a child visibly relax (averting a potential disaster) when saying these things:
- “I see you are feeling frustrated….”
- “It looked like you were feeling hurt.”
- “Did that make you feel disappointed?”
Invite Conversation, Don’t Demand
This often follows validating the child’s emotions, discussed above. It’s a fine line, because sometimes talking puts the child over the edge you were trying to pull him back from.
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
- Offer suggestions indirectly: “When I’m feeling ___, sometimes it helps me to ___ or ___. What do you think would help you?” (Thanks to our therapist for this helpful idea.)
Give Choices to Empower, Not Control
While it is important for children to learn to follow directions, less compliant children may turn commands into power struggles.
Giving children choices—ones that both lead to the desired goal—will not only help them feel empowered, but also help them learn to take responsibility for their choices. They are not at the mercy of their emotions when they are making conscious choices. It may help to avoid a full-on meltdown, especially if you see frustration mounting.
- If morning or bedtime routines are challenging: “Do you want to get dressed or brush your teeth first? (Both still need to be done.)
- When there is resistance to helping with household chores: “Do you want to help me fold laundry or help me sweep the floor?” (Being part of the family still comes with responsibilities.)
- If food is an issue for picky eaters: “Do you want peas or carrots?” (Offer equally healthy options, but don’t force both.)
- If homework elicits meltdowns, request input: “Can you concentrate better if we do the homework right after school, and then have the rest of the afternoon to play, or if you play for 30 minutes, and then do homework?” (This helps develop self-awareness and decision-making skills.)
- When frustration is mounting (or heightened emotions are lingering after a meltdown): “Do you want to take a break in your room or calm down outside?” (Again, commands don’t go over well during moments of emotional dysregulation.)
Watch Your Tone of Voice
As much as I’m a generally calm person, this one is hard for me. When I expect that children should do as the parent/teacher says, I use a matter-of-fact, business-like voice. Some children interpret that at rough or impatient, even if it’s not meant that way. When I become impatient, that may be interpreted as anger, though it is not. While we may not understand sensitive children’s reactions, it can be good to check our tone.
Many times in the past year or two, our daughter has begged me, “please use your nice voice, Mommy”—meaning a put-on, sugary-sweet voice, like strangers use when doting on a small child. To me this was unnatural. When I tried it, though, it seemed to make her feel happier, more accepted, and more loved, so it did help. (I also spent time explaining that my normal voice wasn’t angry, helping her to interpret my emotions.)
Humor lightens almost any situation, and this is no less true when dealing with easily angered children. My serious nature sometimes makes matters worse, but my husband is a pro at averting a meltdown with humor. If our child is showing signs of frustration, or even starting to cry, he can tease, make jokes, or otherwise distract her from her immediate frustration. This tactic lightens the situation enough to change the direction of her emotions.
One trick our therapist taught us is to do half-smiles. Try smiling with only half your face. Awkward, isn’t it? Without issuing an unreasonable demand for cheerfulness, suggesting half smiles—and doing it together—feels so ridiculous everyone is soon laughing in spite of themselves.
Notice Warning Signs
Diverting a child’s attention to avoid a full-on meltdown is preferable to picking up the emotional pieces afterward. Doing it in time requires a watchful eye and knowledge of how your child responds.
This may mean switching gears, stepping back, going silent, asking questions, using humor, or any of the ones discussed above. It depends on what you’ve learned about how your child responds from previous episodes.
During a Meltdown
Not much can be accomplished once a child’s emotions are out of control. The main thing is to keep everybody safe; the teaching and correcting can wait until later.
As much as you hate out-of-control behavior, and your child should know better by now, reacting in anger to his meltdown will make it worse. Trust me, I know. As I’ve said before, the most extreme behaviors occur when the child feels unloved.
Actpatient (even if you don’t feel patient.) Don’t take it personally! While anger may be directed toward you in the moment, you’ll probably find out later it wasn’t about you.
Take Noticeably Slow, Deep Breaths
Stopping to breathe deeply and slowly calms me so I don’t over-react. But I’ve also noticed it influencing the child’s breathing as well.
Offer Calming Strategies
Remind your child of strategies she has already practiced, or things you know calm her down. Suggest, don’t command—angry children (like adults) don’t receive commands very well.
- Hot Chocolate Breath—Hold a pretend mug of hot chocolate in your hands in front of you. Slowly inhale the pleasing aroma. Then slowly exhale peace and satisfaction through your mouth.
- Belly Breathing with Teddybear—Lie on the floor, placing a teddybear on your belly. Breathe deeply, inflating your stomach. Watch the teddybear go up and down.
- Wrap up in cozy blankets like a burrito
- Cuddle favorite stuffed animal
- Time alone to calm down
- Swing on swing
- Rock in a rocking chair
- Sing or listen to music
- Squeeze a stress-ball or other squishy toy (My daughter loves her Squeezimal.)
- Draw or color
Building Emotional Self-Regulation After a Meltdown
As I see it, there are three main purposes to our interactions with a child after a meltdown:
- Reconnect and reassure child of our love
- Probe for the root of child’s behavior so we better understand her, and
- Prepare our child to better handle the next difficult situation
Give plenty of time. Even after a child is calm, talking about the situation may heighten emotions again to an unstable point. Sometimes these conversations need to happen right away, but often they are more productive if held much later. Take your child’s cues for when she is ready to talk…and to listen.
Love Some More
The child probably feels bad about losing control or may doubt your love after being “bad.”
Give extra love, demonstrating God’s unconditional love for his children. Nehemiah 9:17 has helped me do this when my children’s behavior is overwhelmingly frustrating.
Probe for the Root of the Outburst
Wait until the child is calm and ready to talk. Sometimes this is right after. Often it is an hour or two later, or even at bedtime. These questions have worked for me:
- “What were you thinking when you ___?”
- “What were you feeling when you ___?”
Often these questions spark fruitful conversations that yield surprising insights into the child’s mind.
Probing for the root of the meltdown does not validate wrong actions. Instead, it helps the child understand herself better, while letting her know you care to understand her thoughts, feelings, and needs. This, in turn, helps us teach and train for better responses next time.
Differentiate Feelings from Actions
Validate feelings, clarify what is acceptable (and not acceptable) when feeling those emotions, and discuss why.
- It’s okay to feel angry. It’s not okay to hit—that will hurt someone.
- It’s okay to feel frustrated. It’s not okay to rip up your homework—then you’ll have to start all over again.
- It’s okay to feel disappointed when Mommy told you “no.” It’s not okay to call her “stupid”— that’s not true, necessary, or kind; it’s very disrespectful.
Ask What the Child Needs
Many times I have unwittingly exacerbated a meltdown by my well-intentioned response. Prepare for handling it better next time by talking about what the child needs:
- “When you’re angry, do you want to talk about it, or to have silence?”
- “When you are having a meltdown, do you want me to give you space, or hold you?”
Finding out now what our children need in the moment can enable us to better help them to regulate their emotions when they start to get out of control.
Teach the Language for Communicating Needs
Start with the situation that just occurred, and after finding out what the trigger or underlying problem was, give your child a couple ideas of how to use his words instead to solve the problem:
- “I need a break.”
- “I’m tired.”
- “I don’t understand.”
- “Could you help me, please?”
- “My stomach is hurting,” etc.
Explain that when he uses his words, then you will better understand and be able to help so it doesn’t turn into an ugly exchange that ruins the day.
To instill this habit of communicating, it’s helpful to practice these lines in a role play (discussed next).
Role Play Appropriate Responses
Our therapist recommended using role plays many times. We found them more helpful than simply talking about what to say, and our child usually enjoyed being an active participant.
This is most helpful AFTER probing for the root cause of the meltdown, differentiating feelings from actions, or teaching the language for communicating needs.
Sometimes we role play the same situation that just occurred (like a do-over) a couple of times to explore multiple appropriate responses. Other times we role play similar, yet imaginary, situations. Either way, we end by talking about how much better it felt to handle the situation that way.
Note: It is probably not helpful for the child to role-play the negative response, because they already have that down pat. Maybe, if you really think it beneficial, the parent could role play what the poor response, so the child sees how silly/immature it really looked. But focus on practicing the positive. This will help the child have a script in mind next time a trigger occurs.
One idea our therapist used a few times was to color the feelings.
- Start with an outline of a person (nothing fancy—it’s okay if it looks like a gingerbread man) and a box of crayons.
- Name a feeling, and have your child choose a color. (“What color is sadness?”)
- Ask, “Where in your body are you feeling sadness?”
- Then direct your child to color, with the selected crayon, where she feels sadness in her body.
- Discuss and list what she is feeling sad about.
- Repeat with other emotions until the child loses interest. (Be sure to include positive emotions. When a child is having a bad day, she needs to think about happy things, too.)
This activity simultaneously helps the child to process her emotions and become aware of how her body responds to those emotions. It also gives the adult a window into how to help the child in the future.
Here are some articles by Nicole Day I found very helpful. While they are geared specifically for parents of children with Autism, much of the information is applicable for other children who have trouble regulating emotions, as well.
- The Ultimate Guide for Preventing Autism Meltdowns–this article provides a very helpful “anatomy of a meltdown”
- 18 Effective De-Escalation Strategies for Defusing Meltdowns–this one explains the brain’s role in emotional regulation
- 6 Powerful NVCI Skills for Handling Meltdowns
The Overarching Goal
I am neither a professional therapist nor a perfect parent (far from it!), and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I simply long to help my children grow up physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, and I strive, by God’s grace, to learn how to do that. What tidbits I have learned, I offer in the hopes it will help others, as well.
The goal here isn’t perfect children. Children who baffle us with their emotional outbursts need extra attention—attention to learning their needs, their fears, their triggers. It can be a long, difficult road, but it is worthwhile to learn—and teach our children—how to handle stressful situations and to communicate needs and feelings appropriately.
Using these strategies may not totally eliminate meltdowns. But they may prevent some meltdowns, and shorten the duration of others. To the parent of an emotionally volatile child, that is success.