1. You can not stop a child from overreacting by overreacting yourself.
I know this seems like the most obvious statement in the world, but it is somewhat difficult in practice. I know and have worked with lots of parents who have their own temper problem and just can’t seem to parent without yelling and frustration and screaming and maybe a little swearing, just for good measure. None of them have ever reported success in this approach. EVER. So let’s stop that. Let’s, right now, agree that you can’t expect your child to learn basic competence at emotional regulation if you are emotionally unregulated when things don’t go your way.
2. You need to learn to quickly differentiate between an angry tantrum and a sad meltdown.
Again, this may seem obvious, but I’ve seen this in my own kids as well as hundreds of families I’ve worked with. You will need to address each of these differently because the side of the brain that is engaged is totally different for each emotion. Anger is what’s called an “approach emotion” and comes from the left hemisphere of the brain. Sadness is a “withdrawal emotion” and originates in the right side of the brain. For some kids, it’s a bit difficult to recognize which they are feeling, even for them. For some kids, it is wildly apparent and you can figure it out quickly. A great way to begin to recognize which emotion you are seeing surface is by noticing whether the child is being aggressive or retreating into their own world. I’m using the word aggressive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean violent. It could be a simple as stomping their feet or throwing something versus collapsing on the floor and screaming.
3. Stopping a tantrum should not be about stopping the feelings.
This almost seems counter-intuitive, but it is important stuff. An emotionally healthy and balanced adult does not go through life with a lack of negative feelings or emotions. They feel most of the feelings that an unhealthy person feels, but they learn to regulate and redirect the feelings before they enter into the frenzied loop that leads to barfights and brawls and abusive relationships. When a child is already in that loop, you are not looking to simply shut off the feelings. If you teach your child to shut off feelings and to ignore the learning process associated with adapting and overcoming and being flexible, you are leaving them to a much harder learning curve later in life.
So, what to do about my sweet baby who is having a tantrum or meltdown? The answer is, simply put, be with him. I have found, even in some of the most extreme cases, that a child is most likely to overcome their meltdown when they experience the unique feeling of being accepted and loved even while they’re in the throes of unbridled anger or sadness. This is not to say that verbally telling the child you love them is the cure for the common conniption. More than likely, the ability to process your words has been suspended for a bit. That’s okay. Say it with your body, your eyes, your hands, your skin, your heart, your presence, your strength, your wisdom, your breath. Be it.
A while back, my now-4-year-old was having a meltdown. It was a major black hole of sadness and personal rejection that surpassed the greatest of historically documented cases of despair. At least, that’s what it sounded like. The travesty of all travesties had occurred. My wife had pulled the minivan into the garage and turned off the motor and opened the side doors, thus turning off the TV and disrupting his viewing of Moana. How dare she?! The volume coming from this little body was impressive. And also just a little worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. Tears streaming down his face, he collapsed onto the kitchen floor, wailing indiscernibly about this tyrannical infringement of his inalienable right to consume animated entertainment. “Give me Moana or give me death!”
Okay, I may have imagined some of that. I picked him up off the floor, his now limp body draped over my arm, tears dripping onto the cold, unforgiving kitchen ceramic tile. I set him on the counter and supported his full 40 pounds as he wept. I literally said, “Buddy, you can go back in the van and watch it if you want.” There was no reason he couldn’t. And I knew he wouldn’t last long before he got bored and wanted to come in the house with the rest of the crew. But he couldn’t hear me. Or he couldn’t understand me. I’m not sure which. I just knew that he was caught in this downward-spiraling tailspin, trapped in a glass cage of emotion (hahaha). I cupped his face in my hands and had him sit up and look in my eyes. I’m sure he couldn’t see me very well because of the tears. He was still wailing, so he still couldn’t hear me. I stopped talking. I took his right hand and placed it firmly over my heart. I put my right hand on his heart. I leaned in and put my mouth right next to his left ear and, in a low, calm voice whispered, “Can you feel my heartbeat?”
He didn’t respond the first couple times I asked. I kept asking. About the fourth time I asked, he looked at me and said he could feel it. I asked if he could feel my chest moving when I breathe in and out. He said he could. I asked him if he could breathe in and out with me at the same speed. He tried. I sped up a little to match his smaller lungs and he began to slow down his breathing. He was no longer crying. It had been less than 5 minutes. He was looking deep into my eyes, feeling my chest filling with air, listening to my voice as I softly encouraged him to breathe in through his nose, out through his mouth. We continued this for about a minute. I had my daughter come over to us. I had her put each of her hands on his and my heart. I put one hand on hers. He put one on hers too. We sat there for another couple minutes just breathing and feeling each other’s heartbeat. I was feeling the same thing he was feeling now– calm. His meltdown had turned into a really magical moment that has actually become a thing in our family. When someone is having an emotional moment, we put our hands on each other’s hearts and go through it with them.