Parent Worries: How to keep your cool during your child's meltdowns

Parent Worries: How to keep your cool during your child's meltdowns

Hello everybody! I am excited to launch the first in our parenting seriesParent Worries with parenting expert Louise Hoffman-Brooks of Parenting Success Coaching. In this series, we will be covering highly relatable subjects that parents are feeling the most keenly at the time of writing. In this first edition of Parent Worrieswe will be taking a deep dive into how to keep your cool during your child’s meltdowns.

It is no surprise that many of us parents are feeling more triggered than ever before as we deal with pandemic parenting fatigue. Many of us have at one time of other been feeling exhausted and weary, and when you’re running on empty it can make it very hard to keep your cool during your child’s meltdowns. Well, let’s face it, it’s hard at the best times but throw a global pandedmic into the mix and the ability to resist the urge to throw your toys out of the pram simultaneously becomes almost too strong to fight.

Why do our children’s meltdowns unleash our own? Why do some other parents seem to find it so easy to keep their cool while we are apparently falling apart at the seams, and how can we sidestep further drama by keeping our cool during our children’s outbursts? We’ll cover all of that and more in the following Q&A so read on my friends!

Because feelings are contagious. And because what takes over is our biology which can help us be a little less hard on ourselves whenever we feel a full-blown meltdown of our own bubbling. When our child has a meltdown it all feels a bit out of control. No amount of words and reasoning seems to be making a difference and before we know it our own frustrations rise. It triggers our own fight, flight or freeze response, and whilst in that state we have little to no access to our frontal lobes – the thinking part of our brain. That is, unless we decide to consciously create our own stop button.

We are far more intimately linked to those around us than we realise – because we are wired to detect danger to ensure our survival. Sadly, our brain does not instantly differentiate between a sabertoothed tiger and a 4-year-old screaming and kicking. One is a physical threat – and the other is a more modern threat – a psychological one.

It is tempting to imagine that everyone else is far superior to you at handling a meltdown and that other parents don’t stoop to the levels that you do. This bias is largely what gives rise to unbearable feelings of shame in parenting. Rarely do we get to experience the ‘behind the scenes’ of the people we call our closest friends. During COVID we have only had insight into our friends’ lives through the viewing hole that is Instagram and Facebook where life is always filtered and portrayed as happy.

That said, the way we respond to our child’s big emotions differs and is a result of a number of factors: – How YOU feel (both in general – and in that moment) – What you believe about your child in that moment and the expectations you have. – Your child’s temperament – And not least – how your emotions and meltdowns were met by your own parents growing up.

Most of us have not learnt how to express and feel our emotions and have been taught to shut them down if they were inconvenient or too loud. However, children are able to feel their emotions and are overwhelmed by them all the time – and strongly depend on us to see them through this storm without adding our own anger and frustration to the meltdown.

This is possibly one of the toughest parts about being a parent. Because when our child desperately needs us to stay grounded and mature – when we are triggered, we often regress to the age of our child and suddenly there’s no adult present.

At this stage, we still have a choice in how we behave. It takes practice and a good awareness of what is going on within in order to cultivate your own stop button.  I always advise parents to focus a little less on the child when their own blood begins to boil because the outcome is only ever as successful as our ability to remain in control of ourselves.

Tending to yourself is key. The ‘boiling’ we feel within is a mixture of adrenaline and cortisol that our fight or flight system sends out to our hands and legs to prepare us for battle. When everything in you feels like it is revving up for battle it can feel like an anti-climax to stop this whole process and calm ourselves down.

It’s therefore really key to remember that we most likely won’t FEEL like doing so. That’s why the biggest obstacle to calming ourselves down and getting hold of our own emotions is a lack of desire to do so in the moment.

But some of the things that really help in these situations is to bring some awareness to the situation – and bring our frontal lobes and thinking back online again. This can be done through repeating a mantra of your choice (muttered under your breath): – I can handle this – I am safe – I can support my child through this A slow count up to 10 also does the trick and has the added benefit of creating a space between what is going on and your own reaction. The better able we are to create a gap between the trigger (child’s behaviour) and our reaction – the more likely we are to respond as opposed to react from an instinctive impulse.

When we stand face to face with our children, we often hold our breath. We get swept away by the tsunami of emotions that are triggered by our child’s big emotions – and one of the most powerful ways to change our state is through the body:

– Deep breaths – Moving your body (shake your hands – squat down to your child’s level) – Calm your body down through touch

The very things that help you centre yourself when you feel overwhelmed will work wonders for your child too. It’s helpful to know that our children’s nervous systems settle down in the same way that ours settle down – only they depend on an adult to help them to do so.

That is why strategies like time out and naughty steps are ineffective in helping our child regulate their emotions. While we may see ‘better behaviour’ as a result of having been sent away our child will be no better equipped to deal with overwhelming emotions in the future. The emotional maturity that we wish to bring about in our child happens when we can help them weather the storm together.

We don’t always have it in the tank to deal with our child’s meltdown and big emotions. Some days you feel more easily triggered than others, and when you do you do well to use the support you have around you:

If you have your partner nearby as both you and your child are in meltdown it is a great idea to allow your partner to take over. If what comes out of your mouth is something you know you will later regret there is great power in knowing to take a backseat until things calm down.

For partners to be a true help there is no need to match the anger and intensity of the situation in order to be supportive. Instead use the extra reserves to your advantage and try not to take things personally. It can be hard to walk away from a conflict that isn’t resolved. That’s why it can be a good idea to have a chat during times of peace about how you can best help each other when it’d be wise to take a step back.  

Taking a break from a disagreement can also be helpful, especially with slightly older kids: “Let’s talk about this again when we are in a different headspace”

A shift in perception can also help change the situation. If you can at all view your child as the little person that he/she is. Innocent. Overwhelmed and trying his / her best it becomes a little easier to connect and show some empathy.

Coming alongside your child by saying: “You are so angry right now”.

You can maybe suggest: “Was it when I xxx”?

And then just listen to understand. Not to contradict. This diffuses because we send a signal that we are willing to just listen to their perspective. Even if we disagree. Often fewer words are more effective. And if your child allows – a gentle touch or perhaps a hug.

Many of the parents I work with take great comfort in knowing that all emotions have a beginning, middle and end. While in the moment it can feel like they last forever, the fact is that emotions that are allowed dissolve and become the next emotion within maximum 20 minutes. Unless, we prolong the emotion by wanting to talk our child AWAY from it by reasoning, contradicting or minimising.

Similarly, if you accept that meltdowns are frequent for children and that they aren’t a reflection on your parenting skills. It can feel a little less triggering to have a tantruming child in a supermarket.  The younger our child the more frequent and the more explosive the child’s meltdowns tend to be. A child’s meltdowns can happen in response to things that we don’t think warrants big emotions; like being told no to a second ice cream, having to sit in a trolley or turning off their Ipad.

Therefore, you might want to redefine what success looks like in handling your child’s meltdown. Success is not that you managed to talk your child out of feeling the way they did and averted an emotional outburst – although choice and some distraction can work well.  Success is nothing to do with your child. But to do with how YOU respond during the storm. I always advise that if you managed to not dish out consequences and threats while your child is in a meltdown – you are doing well!

The important thing to remember is that the point isn’t always to calm our child down. Feelings like sadness, anger or frustration are necessary and part of restoring equilibrium. You only need to think of yourself when you are livid about something; e.g. a parking fine that you feel you didn’t deserve. You call your partner to vent your frustration – and if you are not met in your frustration and instead told to calm down or that you should have thought about it before you parked there – your anger only escalates.

If, on the other hand, your partner listens and lets you vent the feeling naturally passes and leaves space for a new feeling. And this is exactly what happens to a child too.

You might want to consider taking your child away from the environment that created the meltdown. If you are at a park – find a quiet spot to sit with your child till the feelings settle. The more empathic and grounded you can be the more of a support you are to your child.

A child’s meltdowns are tough for all parents. So be gentle with yourself. One of the most important things we can do as parents is to repair whenever we feel we said or did things that we regret once things calm down.

“I shouted at you – and it scared you. I shouldn’t have done that”.

This is one of the best things we can show our children; that we can get it wrong – and take responsibility. We don’t need to ever apologise for our feelings. But HOW we handle our feelings is our responsibility and it is so important that children know that they aren’t responsible for how we react.

A child’s meltdowns are part and parcel of childhood. And if you find yourself triggered often by your child’s big emotions it is never too late to begin the journey of creating a stop button, understanding your own anger, and becoming more aware of what happens in you. Children give us a beautiful invitation to look at what’s in our own backpacks too so that we don’t pass on things that don’t serve us.

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