What to Do in the Moment of a Meltdown, Part 2

This is part 2 of a 3-part series answering the question:

What do I do in the moment when my child is hitting, kicking, screaming, or completely withdrawn? 

In the last post, we looked at the hand model of the brain and how our emotions can overpower us in intense moments, when we “flip our lid.” 

Today, we look at strategies for reconnecting the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – or unflipping our lid – and helping our children to do the same.

Reconnecting Your PFC

The first step to helping our children regain their calm is modeling what we mean.  This is more formally referred to as co-regulation.

We have the power to co-regulate because of special cells in our brains called “mirror neurons,” which help us to learn from and connect with our environment.  Mirror neurons allow for empathy and influence our feeling state based on what we see in those around us – especially those we love most.  

Mirror neurons work both ways: if your child freaks out, chances are you will too, which will reinforce that this is a freak-out-worthy event.  But if you can meet big feelings with calmness, eventually your child will match you.

In other words, by actively keeping your PFC engaged during emotional moments, you help your child to do the same.

When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm.  Not join their chaos.

– L. R. Knost

What this looks like:

  • Breath: Focus on keeping your breath steady and calm
  • Voice: Use a calm, quiet voice, even when your internal voice is screaming
  • Self-Talk: Remind yourself, “My child is having a hard time,” or “My child is struggling with something and I’m not yet sure why.”  (Not “My child is being a pain” or “My child is overreacting.”)
  • Physical Posture: Get down to your child’s level physically if they are small, uncross your arms, open your palms.  For some children, it may be helpful to sit at an angle or beside them, as this feels less confrontational.
  • Phrasing: Use neutral words to describe the situation like, “it looks like you and your brother want to play with the same toy,” or “I can see you are upset and I want to help.”  (Not sharing your analysis or solution like, “You’re hungry,” “It’s not a big deal,” or “just do x and you’ll feel better.”)
  • Press Pause: Step away or tag in another adult if available

One resource for developing co-regulation skills is Elizabeth Sautter and Rebecca Branstetter’s course Make it Stick Parenting.  They have dedicated an entire module to co-regulation, including concrete tools and handouts.  

Reconnecting Your Child’s PFC

Now that your PFC is connected, you can help your child.

It is worth noting that in the moment, your job is to help your child get through.  You cannot solve the problem – you will do that later.  You cannot teach them a lesson – you will do that later.  You cannot “help them understand” – that will also come later.

In the moment, you are helping them to unflip their lid and get back to a place where you can solve the underlying problem – together.

Start with Empathy

We can’t listen until we feel heard.  In the moment, putting words to your child’s big feelings and letting them know you get it – or want to – is one of the best ways to help them reconnect their PFC.  

If you are familiar with Collaborative Proactive Solutions (CPS), there is a strategy referred to as “Emergency Plan B.”  This is where you, with your PFC strongly connected, provide a heavy dose of empathy in the moment to help your child self-regulate.  

Empathy in the moment sounds like:

  • I can see you’re having a really tough time.  What’s up?
  • This is really hard. (Do not add, “but…”)
  • It makes sense that you’re angry.
  • I think you wanted to do X, but then the plans changed.  Am I right?  
  • How can I help?
  • [breath]
  • I won’t let you hit me, but I am ready to help.

Remove the Expectation

Children have difficulty when the demands of the environment exceed their current skill set.  Our skills may change depending on our situation (like being in quarantine.)  If your child is struggling, it may be most helpful to simply remove the expectation entirely until you’ve had a chance to figure out and solve the problem.  This sounds like:

  • Let’s take a break, we’ll figure it out later.
  • Let’s put homework aside for now.
  • Let’s go home and figure out a plan for coming back to this store another time.
  • I’m relaxing the screen time rules for today.

For more on this strategy, please see my previous post – It’s Time for Plan C.

Create the Space Ahead of Time

If your child is struggling regularly, it may be helpful to make a plan with them beforehand of where they will go and what they will do.  These include objects and activities that help them calm down and feel safe. 

Make it Stick Parenting suggests making a list (they provide one for you in the course), asking your child to circle the things they want to try “in the moment” and brainstorming more together.   

They also suggest asking your child what’s been helpful before – or not.  Children have different “love languages” (perhaps we should call them “regulation languages”) and some respond well to talk, some to touch, some to spending time.  Or, your child may come up with something completely different.  

Keep them Safe

If your child tends to hit or break things when they are having a hard time, do what you can to remove fragile objects and bring them to a place where they will not hurt anyone. 

Remember, the more you can give them options beforehand, the easier it will be for them to know what to do in the moment. 

Research does not support giving kids alternate things to throw or hit as a way to help, but they can replace this with alternate actions such as:

  • Jumping on the bed or trampoline
  • Dancing to loud music
  • Using a weighted blanket
  • Running
  • Pushups
  • Screaming loudly like their favorite animal
  • Squeezing something really hard

A note about siblings
If the sibling is old enough, make a plan with them, too.  Explain that you are working with their brother or sister to help them learn what to do when they have big feelings.  It’s not the sibling’s fault, and it’s not their job to fix it.  In the moment, the sibling can be most helpful by giving mom/dad and brother/sister space to figure out what is going on and calm down. 

So now what…

Now your child is calm and you have weathered the storm.  Great work!
But that’s not where the work ends.  In fact, this is the starting point.  Now that your child’s PFC is reconnected, you can actually start to solve the problems that caused the hitting, kicking, screaming, or withdrawal in the first place.
The next post will walk you through what to do after a difficult moment, and some basic tools you can put in place to help prevent the next meltdown from happening. 
Let me know what else you need!