Now Is the Right Time!
As parents, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and helping your children learn to deal with their most upsetting emotions constructively provides a perfect opportunity.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about their strong feelings. They do not understand the full body take over that can occur when they are angry, hurt, or frustrated. A sense of a lack of control can be scary and add to the length and intensity of their upset. Meltdowns are normal. Learning how to deal with anger or upset without choosing destructive responses is critical. And, your support and guidance as parents matters greatly.
Research confirms that when children learn to manage their emotions, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.1 They are better able to use self-control, problem-solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success. However, the converse is also true. Those children who do not learn to manage their emotions through the guidance and support of caring adults have attention issues and difficulty in problem solving.
Yet, we all face challenges in managing upset, frustration, and anger. Your child may slam the bedroom door as they refuse to tell you what is happening and why they are so upset. Or, you may hear from a teacher that your child has kicked another child on the playground. There is no age limit for meltdowns. We’ve all seen and experienced adults who have lost control. Despite the age of the individual, the experience is similar.
The key to many parenting challenges, like meltdowns, is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your child work through their roughest, most intense emotional times in ways that build up their resilience and skills for self-management.
Whether it’s your five-year-old melting down in frustration over trying to get shoes on by themselves, your seven-year-old throwing their pencil across the room at homework time when they cannot figure out a problem, or your ten-year-old staying up late angry that a friend refused to play with them; learning how to deal with anger, upset, and their many accompanying emotions can become a regular challenge if you don’t create plans and strategies for managing them.
Today, in the short term, learning to manage meltdowns can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child regain calm and focus;
- a greater opportunity for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our intense feelings; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions;
- learns independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency; and
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries, which are critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you and your child manage meltdowns. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about ways to manage their most upsetting emotions constructively by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to managing their intense emotions so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is anger-related;
- can think through and problem solve any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve thought through and designed themselves, and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies;
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (and understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Be curious about your child’s feelings. You might start by asking:
- “When do you feel angry or intensely upset?”
- “What time of day?”
- “What people, places, and activities are usually involved?”
If your child has recently thrown a tantrum, then use that example to reflect on what caused it at a time when you are both calm. You might ask, “What made you so upset after school a few days back?” Finding out what contributed to a tantrum can give you insight into your child’s triggers and also help raise your child’s self-awareness.
- Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry can differ greatly from what angers a child. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because intense feelings like anger and hurt occur as we go about our daily lives, we may not consider its role and impact on our children though it can have a major influence on the day and our relationship with them. Learning about what developmental milestones a child is working on can help a parent know when their ages and stages might be contributing to anger or frustration. Here are some examples:
- Five-year-olds are working hard to understand how things work, so they tend to appreciate explanations and ask lots of questions. They may struggle to see others’ perspectives. They are working hard to understand rules and may be upset or disappointed when they do not understand a rule or struggle to show competence. They may get angry if they break a rule or if they see others breaking a rule. But, they are also beginning to test rules as they move from five to six which can prompt a parent’s anger.
- Six-year-olds can feel anxious as they want to do well in school and at home. They may be highly competitive and criticize peers while being sensitive to being criticized themselves. They care about friendships and may have upset related to those relationships.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may get angry and feel out of control, when schedules are chaotic and routines change. They may be moody and require reassurance from adults. They take school and homework seriously and may even feel sick from worrying about tests or assignments. They can take academic failure personally and get angry and push away or neglect their work, to avoid more failure.
- Eight-year-olds have interest and investment in friendships. Peer approval becomes as important as the teachers’ approval. Peer approval can create upset when they are rejected by friends. They are more resilient when they make mistakes. They have a greater social awareness of local and world issues so they may be concerned about the news or events outside of your community.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowd and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend toward excluding others in order to feel included in a group, so it’s a good time to encourage inclusion and kindness toward a diverse range of others. They are just beginning puberty. They will be experiencing growth spurts and the associated clumsiness and awkwardness. Anger can be generated from rejection or judgment from peers.
- Ten-year-olds have an increased social awareness and try to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. With this awakening comes a newfound worry about what peers are thinking of them (for example, “He’s staring at me. I think he doesn’t like me.”). They can become angered if they feel judged even if they are not making accurate predictions of peers’ feelings. They are also seeking more independence from parents so they can get angry when parents either treat them as they were treated in younger years or make them feel dependent (taking some of their power away).
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
- Learn together! Anger or hurt is an important message from ourselves to pay attention to. It means our emotional, social, or physical needs are not getting met or necessary boundaries (rules, values) are being violated. It’s important to ask: “Why am I feeling this way? What needs to change in order to feel better?”
- Respond with emotional intelligence. When your child has a meltdown, focus on calming down yourself and then, your child. Stop what you are doing and walk them, if you can, to a safe, non-public spot where they can calm down. Don’t leave them. Be with them and using a calm, soft voice, encourage them to breathe by breathing with them slowly. Don’t try and talk about the situation until they are calm (they won’t be able to hear you anyway). Stand aside and focus on your own deep breathing while you allow your child time to calm down.
Raising your voice and your level of upset in response to your child’s tantrum will only increase the intensity and duration of your child’s upset. Yelling only communicates that you are raising the level of emotional intensity not diminishing it. Leaving your child alone in their room will also escalate the tantrum at this age. They need you and they may be fearful of themselves because they have literally been overpowered by their own emotions.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child can use depending on what feels right. But when you are really angry and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child really needs it. Here are some ideas from the author of Coping Skills for Kids, Janine Halloran4: Imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, color, build something.
The saying “name it to tame it” really works! Look for ways to identify feelings and name them. Post this feelings list on your refrigerator as a helpful reminder. The more you can name a range of feelings in family life, the more comfortable your child will get with articulating what they are feeling. This one strategy alone can reduce the time a child is engaged in a meltdown since they become skilled at articulating what they are feeling and feel more capable of securing your understanding faster.
- Create a calm down space. During a playtime or time without pressures, design a “safe base,” or place where your child decides they would like to go to when upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair in their room, a blanket, or special carpet in the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help with the calm down.
Tip and Trap
The only way a calm down space serves as a tool for parents to promote their children’s self-management skills is if they allow a child to self-select the calm down space. Practice using it and gently remind them of it when they are upset. “Would your calm down space help you feel better?” you might ask. But if that space is ever used as a punishment or a directive – “Go to your calm down space!” – the control lies with the parent and no longer with the child and the opportunity for skill building is lost.
- Design a plan.
- Teach your child how to stop rumination. If you catch your child uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then your child’s mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go.
- Talk to your child about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue, but talking about them might help, calming down might help, and learning more might help. Setting a positive goal for change will help. Practice what you can do when you feel you are thinking through the same upsetting thoughts.
When you notice the same upset running through your mind, say “Stop!” out loud. Then, try out one of your coping strategies to help you feel better and let go of those nagging thoughts. Encourage your child to try it.
- Reflect on your child’s anger so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself,
- “What needs is my child not getting met?” Their needs can be emotional needs like: we need a friend to listen or give us their attention, we need some alone time, or we need to escape a chaotic environment.
- “Can the issue be addressed by my child alone or do they need to communicate a need, ask for help, or set a boundary?” One of the hardest steps to take for many can be asking for help or drawing a critical boundary line when it’s needed. You’ll need to find out what those issues are in your reflections with your child first. But then, guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Help your child to repair harm when needed. A critical step in teaching your child about managing anger is learning how to repair harm when they’ve caused it. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that they take that matters in repairing the relationship.
- Find small opportunities to help your child mend relationships. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sister feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?”
- Allow your child to supply answers and you may be surprised at how many options they come up with. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it.
If you tell or even command your child to make an apology, how will they ever learn to genuinely apologize with feeling? In fact, apologizing or making things right should never be assigned as a punishment since then, the control lies with the adult and robs the child of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask the child how they feel they should make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.
Understanding intense emotion is key to helping your children better understand themselves and learn healthy ways to manage their intense feelings.1
- Tantrums occur at any age. Though we may not call it a tantrum beyond toddler or preschool age, children, teens, and adults alike can emotionally lose control.
- Anger is not bad or negative. We should not avoid or shut down the experience of it. There’s good reason for anger. We have all experienced someone in our lives who has lost control and acted in ways that harmed themselves or others when angry. However, we know that every emotion, including anger, serves a critical purpose. Anger provides essential information about who we are, what emotional or physical needs are not getting met, and where our boundaries lie.
- Expressing anger such as yelling will not dissipate it. In fact, research confirms that the expression of aggression whether it’s yelling or hitting (and that includes for parents, hitting, yelling, or spanking) exacerbates the anger.2
- Venting such as complaining, ranting, or even mumbling does not get out the upset thoughts and feelings. In fact, venting is to anger as rumination is to worry. We can churn through worrying thoughts in our minds repeatedly but those thoughts go nowhere and ultimately, are unproductive. So too venting, whether we are listing off our complaints to another or talking to ourselves, tends to reinforce our negative thinking because it does not offer an alternative view of the situation nor does it pose any solutions.
- Avoiding or pretending you are not angry will not make it go away in time. Because the emotion – like any other emotion – is emerging to send a vital message to its owner, it cannot be avoided or denied. When turned inward, that anger can become destructive in the body. Also, when anger is buried, it can be stuffed down for a time but may contribute to a larger explosion (that may not have occurred otherwise) because of the build up of heated emotions over time.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children to internalize new skills. Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child manages their intense emotions.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can manage their emotions successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
- Use “Show me…” When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “Show me how you use your safe base to calm down.” This can be used when you observe their upset mounting.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you took some deep breaths when you got frustrated. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even ones you don’t like! When your child is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!3
- Teddy bear belly breathing. Balance a teddy bear on your child’s tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of their breath. This would be ideal to practice during your bedtime routine when you are lying down and wanting to calm down for the evening.
- Blowing out birthday candles breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Play turtle. In the research-based social and emotional learning curriculum for schools, the PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) curriculum encourages children to pretend they are a turtle. When they are upset, they can sink back into their shells (they can place their arms over their head) and breathe inside the shelter of their own arms to regain calm before re-entering their environment. This could inspire wonderful play with young children and stir their vivid imagination of what it might look like and feel like when they are calming down.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting of the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
Have you seen the tiny Guatemalan Worry Dolls that you tell your worries to before going to bed and then, they take on your worries for you so you will be relieved of them and can sleep? Use this wonderful concept with your children. Assign a few stuffed friends or favorite action figures the job! Addressing worries can help alleviate feelings that are compounding and may be building up to an explosion.
- Reflect and reframe. When you are reflecting with your child about their upset, it can be helpful to consider the issue from another perspective. Though you never want to excuse another child’s hurtful behaviors, you can understand their thoughts and feelings better. For example, Julie was cruel to your child today when, on most days, they are joyful friends. You might ask, “Do you know if anything is going on at home or at school that might be upsetting to Julie?” Find out. What if Julie’s parents have recently announced they are getting a divorce? There are always reasons for children’s behavior. See if you can dig further to find compassion and understanding and share that with your child.
- If your child has acted in ways that part with your family’s values, be sure and reflect on those such as, “In our family, we choose never to hit another person or cause physical harm. What could you have done instead?”
Refrain from judging your child’s friends. You want your child to trust you with their friendship worries and problems. If you harshly judge their friends, they may lose some of that trust and may not confide in you.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for managing their intensely upset feelings so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. Do you remember what you can do to assert your feelings?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger. Being informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
The best birthday present you can give your child doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package. In fact, you can use their birthday milestone to learn about his/her development for that coming year. You’ll better understand what your child is going through and be better positioned to support them through it.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished. But if your child is working hard to manage their intensive feelings constructively, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to your child’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the full bedtime routine to go smoothly – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, after getting through your bedtime routine, snuggle together and read before bed. Or in the morning, once ready for school, take a few minutes to watch a favorite cartoon together. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You went to your safe base when you were upset earlier. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
In this tool, the term “meltdown” and the term “tantrum” are used interchangeably. However, we recognize that some families have children who are sensitive to sensory input and may view meltdowns and tantrums differently.