The #1 Parenting Tip I Teach First

Jun 02, 2021

Learning what to do when your children have an emotional outburst, meltdown or tantrum is the top parenting tool that I teach as part of the Conscious Parenting Toolbox…  just knowing and implementing this strategy can make a world of difference in how you parent!

What do you do when your child has a meltdown, or an over the top emotional reaction?  Do you end up frustrated and at times you end up losing it too? If you’re like most parents, it will likely depend on what you’re doing at the moment and also whether you’re in public or not.  Who here doesn’t worry about what other people are going to think when their child has a meltdown?!  They always seem to happen at the worst times, but when you start to understand why they happen and what is going on with both you and your child when they happen the timing actually starts to make more sense.

If you are busy and already have a lot on your plate that you are juggling or you are out in public when the meltdown happens, it’s likely that all of the thoughts that you will have when your child is melting down will be about how it affects you…  Why does this always happen right as we have to head out the door? Now we’re going to be late.  Can we just eat dinner out as a family for once without one of the kids having a melt down?  Why can’t they get along and play together nicely? Or as they get older, I don’t see why they’re making this such a big deal, there is no reason to be this upset and this is not the time and place.

Usually the meltdown in them generates frustration in you.  But take a minute and pause here…  Think about how you might parent from a place of frustration.  You may try to start from a place of reason and talk them through it, but if they don’t immediately fall in line do you get short-tempered, authoritative, reactive, raise your voice and possibly lose it too?  Does this sound familiar?  Reacting to meltdowns are usually not our best parenting moments.

Kids can lose it for all sorts of reasons.
Your toddler can go over the edge because his sibling was playing with his favorite toy, or because she doesn’t want to stop playing when it’s time to go home.  Your 10 year old daughter can come downstairs furious with you because she was in the shower and needed a towel and was screaming for you but you didn’t hear her. 

In general, as humans we want what we want.  For the most part, as adults we have learned the concept of delayed gratification, how to self soothe and talk ourselves through things, we are open to considering someone else’s perspective, and we are likely to know how to negotiate and advocate for ourselves.  We are running the “adult” program.

But, consider that our children do not have these skills yet and they are running a 3 year old program, or a 10 year old program.  When you look at it this way, it makes sense that they would get extremely frustrated when they want something and can’t have it right away, and why that might lead to a meltdown.  We want our kids to behave in accordance with adult programming, but they are actually running age appropriate programming. Consider that they are acting exactly as they should for their age.  Could that change how you respond?

The other thing to take into consideration, is that our children want our attention.  Our kids want our attention more than anything else, and negative attention is better than no attention.  This could help explain why our kids tend to have meltdowns at the times when it’s least convenient because we are rushed, busy, and juggling.  We are not giving them as much attention, and they act out because they’re looking for it.  Again, they want what they want and they act accordingly.

When the meltdown or outburst happens, our first instinct tends to be to respond logically.  You want to tell your toddler that he has to share, explain to your daughter that it’s time to go home to get dinner ready otherwise everyone is going to be hungry, or you let your 10 year old daughter know that you just didn’t hear her.  You may also want to address inappropriate behavior and consequences. 

There will be a time for that later, but when your child has gone over the edge they can’t relate to reason and it’s not the best time to address misbehavior. 

Understanding your child’s brain and knowing how to respond to these situations is the first tool I teach in my Conscious Parenting Coaching Program. It starts with understanding your child’s brain. Our brains have two hemispheres, the left and the right.  Our left brain is logical, literal, linguistic and linear (it puts things in order).  Whereas our right brain is emotional, nonverbal and cares about experiences.

When your child is having an emotional meltdown, they are completely in the emotional, right-side of their brain and reasoning with them typically doesn’t work.  They have disconnected with the logic that happens in the left side of their brain, so when you try to talk and reason with them it’s almost as if they can’t hear you.  They continue to cry or rant, you continue to try to talk them down, and in many cases things escalate. That’s because – at the moment your child is not able to think from their logical left-side.  They are firmly and completely wrapped up in their right-sided, non-rational flood of emotions.

The quickest way to calm them down is to connect with them on that emotional level, right-brain to right-brain.  You tune into your emotions with empathy and compassion because you want them to feel heard and understood. Again, the right brain is nonverbal so you want to communicate with physical touch (a hug), empathetic facial expressions, a calm and nurturing tone of voice, and nonjudgmental listening. It can be as simple as telling them that you can see that they’re upset and that you understand. For your toddler that attention and a hug may be enough.

Here’s what the conversations might look like…

With your toddler you might start by getting on their level and talking in a soothing voice and reassuring hand on their shoulder telling them I see that you’re really enjoying playing right now and you don’t want to stop, right?  I understand that it’s hard to stop playing when you’re having fun, that’s hard for me too. Do you want to make plans to come back and play sometime soon?  Maybe we can also see if your friend wants to come to our house one day to play too, what do you think of that?

Okay, let’s get our stuff picked up now and we can come up with a plan when we drive home.  Does that sound good?

With your 10 year old, the conversation may be a little different...

I understand that you’re really upset because you were in the shower and kept calling for me to bring you a towel but I didn’t come.  You thought I was ignoring you, right?  I would be upset if I thought I was being ignored too.  Honey, if I had heard you I would definitely bring you a towel.  I wouldn’t ignore you, I just didn’t hear you.

If they’re still stuck, you may need something bigger to grab their attention.  Where your attention goes is what grows, so you are looking to remain calm, acknowledge their feelings, and then redirect their attention.  The idea is to connect and redirect.  

As your kids get older you may need to adjust your response and give them some space to process.  When they respond emotionally they have cortisol flooding their body, and it can take 20 minutes or more for the cortisol response to die down.  Your best bet with your older kids is to give them some time and space.  I find that if you acknowledge their feelings and let them know that you understand that they’re upset and then give them some space, that they will come back later and either apologize or at least be in a space to be able to talk it through calmly.

Just because your child was having a right-brain moment does not excuse them for inappropriate behavior, but you will have a much more productive conversation if you engage their left-brain first.  Any family rules that you have established; being respectful to others, not hitting or yelling – should always be followed regardless. However, the conversation will likely go much better once your child has calmed down.

Again – The key is to connect with them and allow them to calm down first. You may be able to do that relatively quickly with your toddlers, but it may take a couple of hours or more for your teen to see reason.  If you stay calm and acknowledge their feelings from a place of non judgment, you are laying the groundwork to have a much more productive conversation later where you can address any misappropriate behavior that occurred during the meltdown once they are back and thinking logically from their left brain again.  

For your part, you want to remain calm and not lose it on your end. You want to think logically throughout so YOU don’t move to your emotional right brain and behave in a way that you will later regret.  One way that I work with parents is by walking through times when their child has lost it. We work through strategies of how they will remain calm and how they can best respond to their child so they know in advance exactly what they want to do and say so when a similar situation comes up again (and it will!), they have decided in advance how they will respond.

This strategy is part of my Conscious Parenting Toolbox.
I hope that you found it helpful and easy to implement.  If you are having specific parenting challenges, I can help!  Kids don't come with a parenting manual. Find out how a Parent Coach can help you with parenting challenges so you can parent confidently and have better relationships with your kids. Go to melpeirce.com/consult to book a free call and discover how a parent coach can help you.

You can also sign up for my workshop on How to Help Your Child Navigate Negative Feelings which I will be running again on June 23rd by visiting melpeirce.com/register. The workshop covers how to help your child deal with negative feelings, how you can best respond as a parent when your child is experiencing negative emotions, as well as other specific and actionable strategies that you can start using today to help you better connect with your kids.  

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