How to Respond to An Emotional Meltdown with Kids

How to Respond to an Emotional Meltdown with Kids

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Loren Lomme, LPC Intern

Let me paint a picture any parent can imagine.

You just sent your six year old to time-out for pushing his younger brother and you are now noticing yourself using your impatient, yelling voice with the four year old who is yelling at you because he can’t find his favorite superhero toy. At first glance, you feel validated in your angry response because clearly it is not your fault that Batman is lost and you don’t deserve the wrath of your tiny tyrant, especially when you just rescued him from his brother and had to deal with the backlash of relocating him to a time-out. Feeling overwhelmed, you furiously search for Batman, find him under the pile of clothes you now refer to as Mt. Laundry, hastily deliver him to the tiny tyrant who is still yelling, and continue to feel overwhelmed because maybe the last 10 minutes didn’t play out so well for anyone.

Now let’s hit the pause button and imagine a different picture.

Your six year old pushes his brother down. Little brother seemingly recovers and comes yelling at you about Batman. You squat down, acknowledge that losing a toy is frustrating, especially after you have just been pushed down, and gently offer a hug. You hold out your hand and get out your imaginary magnifying glasses to go on an emergency Batman rescue search. Batman is quickly found and little brother zooms off to play. Next you approach big brother and request a time in because you realize it’s important to connect with him before any correcting can successfully take place. You offer him the choice of his bedroom or the couch so that he can choose how “in” he wants to be (right next to you on the couch or several feet away in his room). Once you’re there, you use the time in to be together. Depending on his mood you might read a book, rub his back, listen intently while his talks about his latest Lego creation, or maybe just share the space together. It takes a few minutes, but eventually you get not only eye contact but a smile. Now that you’re connected you ask about his day and find out that several kids teased him on the playground, and when little brother came bugging him for help finding Batman, he really just wanted to be alone. He felt so angry that he pushed little brother out of his room. You can probably imagine how things might go from here: comforting from you, apology to brother, etc.

What was the difference between the first and second scenarios?

Two big A’s: Attachment and Attunement. You strengthened and then used your attachment relationship (i.e. your emotional bond between your self and your child) with both of your boys when you validated their feelings and used your imagination (magnifying glass scenario) and calming, supportive presence (time in) to connect with them. You were also attuned to your kiddos’ needs. When we attune, we work to understand what someone needs or wants in the moment. You attuned to your four year old’s leftover hurt of being pushed down and need for comfort as well as your six year old’s need for support and control (when you gave him a choice of where to do time in).

We all know that these situations can escalate quickly and even the strongest attachments and most skilled “attuners” experience bad days and don’t always get it right in the moment. The good news is that the more you know and the more you practice, the easier and more natural these become. There are tons of ways to strengthen our attachment relationships with our kids, ways to connect in the moment, and opportunities to practice attunement. Play therapists are full of ideas to improve the big A’s. If you feel that you need additional tips regarding parenting and children, you contact us to make a counseling appointment or read more about child counseling and family and parenting counseling on our dedicated pages. For additional tips on children and parenting, you can read How to Talk About Sex With Your Son or Daughter and How to Boost Self-Esteem in Kids.