Balancing Nurturance With Control When Your Child Is Melting Down

 What advice do you have about handling meltdowns? We call our kids Mr. and Mrs. Meltdown.

One of the most disturbing challenges confronted by parents is the child in meltdown mode. As emotions flare and behavioral control disappears parents face a very real tipping point. The impulse to “fight fire with fire” grips some parents who regress into their own meltdowns. Other parents abide by the belief that their child needs to “get it out of their system” and allow the child to privately unleash their rage within their room. Both strategies have significant drawbacks and set the stage for even more serious problems for the child and the family.
If this situation rings unfortunately true read on for ways to balance nurturance and control in responding to your meltdown prone offspring:
Parents must mentally prepare in order to produce the desired response when it is needed most. This entails pausing, realizing a response to meltdown is needed, and combining  the qualities of gentle verbal guidance and firm physical control over the deteriorating circumstances.  “I see that your feelings are taking control right now and we need to do what is needed to take control back from them,” illustrates the nurturing control that is needed. What comes next often requires a strong physical presence that makes it clear that the child will be guided to a safe place where the parent will stay with them until emotional equilibrium is restored.   
While stationed in meltdown monitoring parents function as containers for the child’s emotions by avoiding judgments of blame and focusing on guiding them towards recovery of control. Avoid stating consequences that will befall the child, reminders of what the child is missing while in the throes of meltdown, making arbitrary decisions and expressing feelings about the child’s behavior. Containing the child’s meltdown is accomplished through acknowledging the child’s healthy wish to feel better and put this storm behind them and when necessary, providing physical control over the child’s impulse to hurt themselves, others, or property.  The child’s verbalizations of rage and blame are responded to with a razor sharp focus on recovery not review of the facts.
Once the meltdown has passed the child is allowed to rejoin the family with the understanding that the processing of events will take place at a later time. This delay allows for warm and loving feelings to be restored between family members, a vital foundation upon which to discuss the previous meltdown and its triggers. Discussion of the triggers tends to be especially difficult for meltdown prone children, as they might worry that it will start all over again. Parents must reassure them that the purpose of discussion is to grow out of the meltdown habit by dealing with triggers in a constructive problem solving manner.
When processing the events that led to the meltdown emphasize their internal feelings and thoughts that sped through the child during the start. Refer to these as early warning signs that can alert them to the need to take steps to avoid falling into the meltdown trap. Emphasize the need to remove themselves from the situation before losing emotional control or find a calmer voice to express their pain and/or anger.
Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting. Contact him at 610-238-4450