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Meltdowns--what are they and how to help

First, let's make a distinction between meltdown and tantrum. We often use "tantrum" to describe any time a child is crying. "Throwing a fit" is another phrase we throw out when children are screaming. However, these terms may not be accurate. Tantrums and fits are the response to a child not getting what they want in many cases. Meltdowns, however, are an indicator that a child is struggling. To be clear, the child is struggling during tantrums and fits too. Meltdowns are bigger, though, and often communicate more than tantrums and fits.

Tantrum characteristics:







Generally in response to frustration.

Can be stopped by giving the child what they want.

Generally outgrown within a few years.

Meltdown characteristics:

Same as above. Not confusing at all!

Can last several hours.

Biggest difference here is that meltdowns cannot be stopped by giving in to the child.

Not generally outgrown.

Indicate deeper need.

How to address Tantrums/fits:

Calm is always our best defense against our children's outbursts. We might need to remove them from a particular area so we don't disturb others. I had to move Kae a few weeks ago so she wouldn't disturb others. That is perfectly okay. I then let her scream out her frustrations where she wasn't disruptive. Once she was calm, I offered hugs, and we talked out the issue. She was able to understand, but still felt sad. I assured her sadness is fine, but screeching while others are trying to work is not.

I knew I wouldn't reach her while she was screaming. She couldn't hear me. I let her scream out her feelings THEN talked.

I did NOT give in. I knew that if I gave her what she wanted, she would immediately stop her fit. But I knew also that if I gave in, I would teach her that her screaming will result in her getting what she wanted. I don't want her to learn that. I want her to learn that sadness and frustration are fine, but that we don't always get what we want. I want her to learn Mom will always be there in her sadness AND I will honor my words even when she doesn't like them.

How to address Meltdowns:

First, create safe spaces for kids to express their feelings. Throwing things, hitting, kicking, and head banging are common reactions to frustration so kids need safe spaces to them where they won't get hurt or harm others. A soft place to lie down and soft things to throw are great materials to have available in your safe space.

Restraining your child in a safe way for you and them might be necessary if you're uncertain whether they will harm themselves or others during their meltdown. My kids respond well to me standing or sitting behind them and tightly bear-hugging them. If I hold them close, they don't have the range to wind up to hurt me if they do lash out in some way. I make sure to keep my arms far from their mouths too so I can avoid being bitten. I rarely have to use any restraint at this stage, but there was a time I needed to protect myself and other children. This should be used sparingly and only in cases of imminent danger. While I restrain, I make sure to use calm breathing so they can feel and adopt my calm. This also helps them achieve their own calm.

I never attempt to talk with them through their meltdown. They cannot process my words and may become more frustrated and heightened because of my attempts. I am silent and calm while they rage. I used to try to talk Will out of screaming. He screamed harder and longer. I wish I had learned earlier to just let him have his time.

I make sure I am available when they are ready to reconnect too. Once they have expressed their feelings for as long as they need, they know I am available to hug and hold them as long as they need. They know I won't pressure them to talk until they are ready. Then, I just listen to whatever they need to say. I don't interject. I don't correct or help.

My job is to listen and love. Not judge. When we communicate that our kids' feelings are valid, we create emotionally safe space in addition to the physically safe space above. The emotionally safe space is just as important, if not moreso. Our kids need to feel like they are allowed to feel however they feel. We need to listen to their feelings and help name them. I do a lot of "I hear you feel ______." and "How can I help you?". Sometimes they just need to know I hear. There isn't a solution to the problem. There isn't a magic band-aid to fix what's wrong. Sometimes, it's just being there that matters. So I hold space for when they're ready.

Once we have achieved calm after a storm, I invite them to discuss the underlying issues but understand they might not be ready to. I remind them that I am there when they are ready, and that they have their notebooks. They may write to me and mark the page I am to read. I honor their privacy by not looking at what isn't meant for me. I respond in their journals too. Sometimes, kids struggle to talk about struggles but can write about them. If your child is pre-writing age, drawing can be a good way to communicate feelings too. Our job isn't to fix it or judge it. Our job is to help them understand the issues and work through them.

This is NOT easy. Parenting isn't easy. Parenting intense kids is harder. Reach out if you need more support in parenting through meltdowns.

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