Helping Children Learn to Express Powerful Emotions
By Megan Shake, LSW- November 25, 2020-
They can happen anywhere – the grocery store, the doctor’s office, restaurants, school, or home. If your child is prone to meltdowns, you know they can strike at any time and any place!
The first step in helping children manage meltdowns is to understand why the meltdowns are happening. This can be difficult since these meltdowns can be triggered by a variety of reasons: fear, frustration, anger, anxiety, or sensory overload. Fortunately, children typically have meltdowns in very predictable situations, so you can learn to be more prepared to manage an outburst when it occurs.
Meltdowns are often symptoms of distress that your child is struggling to manage. As a result, children attempt to do whatever it takes to get what they want, even if it means crying, yelling, kicking, name calling, or throwing things. This can result in outbursts becoming learned behaviors if the child achieves the outcome they desire from the meltdown.
Understanding meltdowns means knowing what triggers them. According to Dr. Vasco Lopes, a clinical psychologist, a common trigger for many kids is when they are asked to do something they don’t want to do or when they cannot continue doing something they enjoy. This can be especially true for kids with ADHD as some tasks can be less stimulating and require them to control physical activity.
Once triggers can be pinpointed, try to modify the trigger. This could mean giving more warning that a task is about to start or end, especially for those kids who struggle with transitions, or this could mean restructuring problematic activities. For example, if homework time leads to tantrums, you can modify it by offering frequent breaks, support the child in areas that are particularly difficult, organize the work, and break down particularly large or intimating tasks into smaller ones.
Setting clear expectations can also help prevent tantrums from happening. Instead of telling the child that he needs to be good today, be specific and concise in your communication. Tell him that he needs to stay seated during mealtime, keep his hands to himself, and say only nice things as these are very concrete expectations. Also make sure expectations are developmentally appropriate and match the child’s ability.
Furthermore, parents’ or caregivers’ response to tantrums plays a role in preventing future ones. It is helpful to respond to meltdowns consistently. For outbursts that are not dangerous, the goal is to ignore the behavior and withhold attention from negative behaviors we want to discourage. Give attention and praise when your child exhibits positive behaviors. Try to reason with your child during an outburst because his or her ability to reason is diminished.
We all know meltdowns are not easy to get through, and may even cause embarrassment to parents when in public. Know you’re not alone in trying to help your child manage their emotions and remember your child’s meltdowns are not a reflection of your parenting skills. Remind yourself that you are doing great, even on the days when it does not feel like it!