Making it through a meltdown

How to help your child keep his calm without losing yours

Your child wants to eat at his favorite restaurant, but you say no. You find yourself at the store past your child’s bedtime, and she is running on no nap. Or even worse, you refuse to buy your child the checkout-lane candy during that late-night store trip on the no-nap day.

These are all perfect recipes for a meltdown. We’ve all been there, but what are some strategies to use to help prevent meltdowns?

Meltdowns often occur when a child is tired, hungry or unable to communicate properly, and parents need to consider whether a meltdown is happening for these reasons.

Yet when it comes to meltdowns resulting from a child’s being disappointed or protesting a boundary, Dr. Charles Fay, president of Love and Logic, says parents generally can give themselves a pat on the back because they likely just set the perfect limit for the child.

“Kids tend to protest the limits they need the very most,” Fay says.

Fay says the more fits a child has when he is younger, the fewer fits he will have when he is older because he has learned boundaries and how to deal with disappointments in life.

Here are some strategies to consider when dealing with meltdowns:

Know your child’s limits and work within them.

Why are you going to the store with your child after her bedtime? It might be convenient for you, but could you arrange your schedule to go several hours earlier when she is not quite so tired?

Overall, how many activities are you trying to pack into one day? Are you still trying to do more after your child indicates she is “done?”


Offer empathy.

Fay recommends acknowledging you understand what your child is feeling and showing interest in what he wants, even if it’s not something you are going to give him. Sometimes the child might simply want someone to understand what he feels.

Lee’s Summit mom Elizabeth Ditty typically takes her son somewhere quiet and away from everyone when he begins to lose his cool. She then uses this as an opportunity to sit with him and have a calm talk about what he’s feeling.

“That way I can get to the underlying cause or issue and help him find better solutions,” Ditty says. “At the very least, it acknowledges what he’s feeling. It helps both of us.”

She says it’s important to remember your child might be having thoughts and feelings you aren’t immediately in tune with and may just need someone to be understanding.

Blue Springs mom Elizabeth Oswald says she sits near her daughter during a meltdown so she knows she is there for her and is present in the situation. Instead of engaging in the meltdown, she focuses on something else so she doesn’t get stressed and worked up in the moment. She then waits for her daughter to calm down, offers a hug and discusses what happened.


Model the behavior you would like to see in your child.

John Stump, Jr., with Kansas City Family Therapy, says many children question how they are supposed to keep their own emotions under control when their parents are not able to do the same.

“Consider how you are modeling what to do with these emotions during these times,” Stump says. “How am I personally reacting to my child that could make matters worse or make matters better?”

Similarly, Fay says the calmer and more relaxed a parent is when a child is having a meltdown, the better the child will respond.

“Kids take their emotional cues from the adults around them,” Fay says.

With this in mind, have reasonable expectations of how your day with your child is going to go. If you expect perfection, you are going to be disappointed. If you understand your child is going to make mistakes and is in the process of learning how to deal with her emotions, then you will be more prepared to deal with a potential meltdown.

Fay says kids learn best through mistakes, and mistakes aren’t always a negative thing.

“We’re so worried about our kids having problems and our kids making mistakes that we stress all the time,” Fay says.


Know your child’s cues.

How well do you know your child? Are you able to see when your child is reaching the point of a near meltdown and calm him down before it’s too late?

Stump says it’s nearly impossible to teach children anything when they have escalated to the point of a total meltdown. However, if you can intervene in the earlier stages, you can have more success.


Take time for yourself.

We parents often neglect our self-care but we need to take care of our own needs in order to best care for our children.


Be mindful.

Stump encourages spending time learning to manage your own emotions in an effort to be able to respond to your child properly. Identify your own triggers, as well as how and why you respond the way you do when you experience various emotions.


Why the meltdown?

Meltdowns can happen for many reasons, but some of the most common include:

  • The child is tired.
  • The child is hungry.
  • The child is not able to communicate effectively.
  • The child needs a boundary or limit set.
  • The child feels his thoughts and emotions aren’t being understood or acknowledged.


Allison Gibeson is a Lee’s Summit mom and freelance writer.

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