What to Do in the Moment of a Meltdown, Part I

This is a 3-part series answering a very common, yet challenging question: 

What do I do in the moment when my child is hitting, kicking, screaming, or completely withdrawn?

Chances are your house is full of a lot of big feelings right now, for a variety of reasons.  Children are incredibly sensitive to our stress, and are also feeling very real stressors of their own.

When we’re anxious, overwhelmed, fearful, upset, or even just overtired, some of us explode in big behaviors like yelling, hitting, or throwing, and some of us implode by crying, withdrawing, or panicking. 

Ross Greene, creator of Collaborative Proactive Solutions, rightly says that when a child is in the midst of an explosion (or implosion), our best bet is to deescalate and keep everyone safe

  • We cannot “solve” the behavior because the behavior is not the problem.  The behavior is the signal that tells us there is a problem. 
  • We also can’t solve the underlying problem in the moment.  We simply do not have access to the problem-solving part of our brain in the midst of a meltdown. 

To prevent future meltdowns, we will have to solve the problem at some point, but right now, we need to get everyone through.  Which begs the question:

What does it actually look like to “deescalate and keep everyone safe” in the moment of a meltdown?

The Neurobiology of “The Moment”
First, it is important to understand why our brains cannot solve problems in the moment.  Sometimes the very act of teaching this to your children can make a big dent in helping them to avoid a meltdown.  When they know what is happening in their brain, and that it’s not their fault, they can start to ask for what their brain needs in those moments. 
Dan Siegel created the “hand model of the brain,” which visually shows how the prefrontal cortex (just behind your forehead) helps keep our emotional centers in check.

Hold up your hand, fold your thumb across your palm.  Your thumb represents your emotional centers, also called your limbic system. 
Now fold your fingers down over your thumb.  This is your prefrontal cortex, or PFC.  Your PFC is in charge of problem-solving and helping you make good decisions. 
When your PFC is connected to your emotional centers, you can make good decisions about what to do when you have big feelings.  Even if something is frustrating, you can still solve the problem. 
To take it one step further, when your PFC and limbic system are talking to each other, anxiety and anger can be motivating, action-oriented forces to help you make positive change when you sense something wrong with the world. 
To show what happens when your emotions are too intense or too big, flip your fingers back up.  This is called “flipping your lid.”  Now, your PFC is not connected to your limbic system.  You are acting with raw emotion. 
Your limbic system is really good at protecting you, but it is not a thinking part of your brain.  It does not know the difference between the threat posed by a tiger about to eat you, and the threat posed by your sibling knocking down your tower, or broccoli for dinner when you were planning on mac n’ cheese. 
When this part takes over, you can’t make good decisions, and you can’t solve problems.  All you can do is fight, flight, or freeze.  And most of us don’t have much of a choice over which of these our brain chooses to activate.
Now to complicate things, when our kids flip their lid, it is likely that they will trigger us to flip our lids, too.  Then we are both fighting, flighting, or freezing together. 

Here’s what you need to know…

In the moment of a meltdown, our mission is to reconnect the PFC – to unflip our lids. 

  • First, you need to reconnect your own lid.  If your limbic system is driving your response, chances are it will be a less helpful one.
  • Then, help your children reconnect theirs by modeling the calm you want for them.

In the next post, I’ll talk about specific strategies for keeping your PFC connected, as well as what you can do to help your child join you in your calm. 

For now, share the hand model of the brain with your child.  

  • Watch: This video for younger children.  This video for older children.  
  • Read: The Whole Brain Child to find comic-style explanations of the model.
  • Ask them about times when they feel a little upset or anxious and can keep their PFC engaged.  What strategies do they use? 
  • Ask what it is like for them when they “flip their lid.”  Make sure they know it is not their fault – sometimes our limbic system gets very excited, and our PFC has to work extra hard to help it calm down.  They are learning how to do this.   
  • Ask what they notice about times when parents or siblings flip their lids.  What do they see?  Are parents and siblings learning, too?
  • Finally, ask what they find helpful in those moments.  Share anything that is helpful to you in your own moments.

Part II will be coming soon.  Let me know what else you need during this time.

PS – If you want a deep dive into helping your child with emotional skill-building, there is a brand new online course from Make it Stick Parenting that will give you practical tools and strategies for working with big feelings.  More on their approach in the next post!