What NOT to do when your child is having a meltdown

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 Ever feel like you can’t find the right words when your child is having a tantrum? Or wonder why the words you do say seem to make it worse?

 Whether our kids are sad, upset, frightened or they have completely lost it, we as parents usually struggle to regulate ourselves. We often have a strong urge to help our child feel better or stop the crying. This comes from our own discomfort with emotion.

The problem with this urge is that it can have us pushing against our child’s emotions, ‘shhh don’t cry’ or dismissing their experience, ‘you’re ok!’ When kids feel dismissed, or pushed they are likely to struggle more, and this can lead to our child staying upset for longer, or worse a child that learns that it’s better not to show sad feelings to us.

Long term we want to set up a relationship when our child knows they can come to us with their feelings, the good, the bad, and the really hard big feelings.

 Here are four things to avoid saying (and what to say instead).

 1. You’re ok

 It can be so hard to avoid this one, but the message this gives our kids is that we really want them to be ok, or “I’m not ok when you’re not ok”

 What to say instead? “Are you ok?” is a much more open response when our child is struggling, and it allows them to share their feelings more openly.

 2. GO to your room

Sometimes when a meltdown just won’t end or our kids are angry we think that the behaviour is the problem and if we send them away they will learn to calm down. The problem is kids can’t calm down on their own, they need us with them to do that so sending them to their room rarely helps.

What to say instead? “Let’s both go to your room. I’ll stay with you, I can see you are having such a hard time”. This has the huge advantage of our child knowing we have their back even in the tricky times, and as we stay calm and with them as they struggle, they are learning resilience.

 3. When you hit / bite it makes mummy sad”

We want our kids to know their actions have an impact on others, the problem with saying this is that it can make our child feel responsible for our feelings. We are their big person, so they need to know that we’ve got this, and we can step in to help and take charge when they need it.

 What to say instead? “I can see you are so mad, and I won’t let you hit” we focus on helping our child to feel safe, while keeping us and them physically safe.

 4. Look around you, other kids aren’t acting like this”

This is a sign we’ve entered into our own shame response, and it can be so hard not to feel this way especially in public. However, comparison usually escalates things and make our child feel worse.

What to say instead? “Ah you are having such a hard time. Let’s get us both out of here” sometimes a swift exit to the car and a good cry for everyone is what’s needed in these really tricky moments where emotions are boiling over. 

Learning to be with big emotions instead of fix, solve or teach is a practice. We do the best we can, and each time we are able to sit with an emotion our child is learning that we are their safe base. This builds resilience long term and most importantly sets up a relationship that will go the distance long term.

Related Articles
How to tame toddler tantrums and meltdowns
Understanding your child’s behaviour
5 tips for helping children understand differences

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