What to Do in the Moment of a Meltdown, Part 3

This is part 3 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What do I do in the moment when my child is hitting, kicking, screaming, or completely withdrawn? 
Today, we look at what to do after the meltdown to help prevent the next one from happening.  This post includes strategies for recovering and reconnecting with your child, as well as some concrete actions you can take to prevent the next “lid flip.”

Repair and Reconnect

After the explosion or implosion, it is essential to reconnect and repair the relationship.  Here’s how.

1. Recognize your child’s good work

Whatever happened, your child did the best they could to get through the challenging situation.  You can use this as a time to recognize any strategies they may have used, or at least tried to use.  Recognizing the good will help them repeat it.

This may sound like:

  • I noticed you were really trying to tell me what was frustrating for you.
  • I think you tried to solve the problem by _____.  It just didn’t work so well this time.  We’ll think of a different way.
  • I think it was a good idea when you went outside.  It seemed to help.

2. Ask questions

Once everyone is calm, you can ask your child what was and was not helpful in the moment:

  • That was pretty challenging.  Can you tell me more about what happened on your end?
  • Do you remember what was so frustrating for you at the beginning? What started it all?
  • Can you tell me something that was definitely not helpful to you?
  • Was there something I did or you did that was helpful?
  • Is there something I can do in the future to make it easier when we’re in a similar situation?

This will give you a little more information to help you possibly solve the problem that caused the meltdown, or be a more effective helper in the moment the next time big emotions arise. 

3. Let them know what you are working on

Regardless of what they did, it can be affirming for the child to hear that you struggled, too.  This sounds like, “I want to apologize for yelling at you.  I was very frustrated, and I bet there was a better way to tell you that.”  Or, “That was really hard for me, too.  I don’t always know what to do when you’re having a tough time, and I can see now that what I tried didn’t work at all!” 

You can also tell your child what you’re trying.  For example, “I’m working on using a calmer voice when I’m getting frustrated about toys on the floor because I know it makes things even harder when I use a loud voice.” 

This does not excuse the toys on the floor; rather, it recognizes that communicating while angry is a skill we are all working on. 

Prevent the Next Meltdown

The best – in fact, the only – intervention for “the moment” is to solve the problems that are causing the child to melt down in the first place.  We have well-researched strategies for doing this, which you’ve heard me talk about in other posts.  This involves sitting down with your child and asking them about the unsolved problem that lead to “the moment.”

However, the most common question I get from parents is:

How do I stabilize my home so that I have enough space between meltdowns to even start proactively solving problems?

So, while you’re learning how to get to the root, here are a few basics to help [you and] your sensitive children cope with day-to-day challenges:

1. Schedules and Routines

The world is very random and unpredictable when you are small.  Adults have control, which can put young people on the defensive.  Predictability and choice are the antidote

Create a daily schedule (and if you’ve done this in the past – re-create it) and review it with your child each morning. 

Better yet, create it collaboratively with you child by finding a few spots in the day where they can have choice.  Go over any changes or potential changes in your typical routine that they may have to prepare themselves for. 

During your schedule review, you can also remind them of any strategies or solutions you’ve discussed for predictably challenging times during the day, keeping these ideas front of mind.

2. Use Visual Prompts

Many sensitive children struggle to process verbal information in the moment.  Add pictures to your daily schedule to help.  For older children, this may mean rough sketches on a whiteboard, while younger children may enjoy more colorful illustrations.

For younger children it can also be helpful to have a picture menu of options for what to do when bored, frustrated, sad, or even too hyper. 

3. 5:1

Research shows that kids respond best to corrective feedback if they are also given a lot of positive feedback.  5:1 is the magic ratio.  Kids who struggle with self-regulation skills generally get a lot of negative feedback throughout the day, and this is wearing – on both of you!

To work up to 5:1, it can be helpful to notice when you give your child corrective feedback (no, don’t, that’s wrong) and match it with as many positives (thank you for ____, that was helpful, I noticed you did ____) as possible.    

4. Give choices

Get in the habit of offering a choice.  “Do you want waffles or cereal for breakfast?” can be a more helpful way to ask a child to sit down to breakfast than saying “Sit down for breakfast.” 

5. Build vocabulary for big feelings

The more words kids have to talk about feelings, the more they will use them.  Here are a few awesome choices for young children, but let me know if you’d like more here.

I hope this was helpful.  Hang in there and breathe deep.