It can be the hardest thing for parents, when your child is having a full-blown meltdown! The screaming, crying, raging, arms and legs flailing, even throwing and hitting! And it’s even worse when you are out in public and you feel like you are getting disapproving stares!
But I’ve learned to really welcome these moments as an opportunity to support my child to process and release all sorts of bottled up feelings.
All children have an emotional backpack; all day long things happen to them that they don’t have the chance, or the support, to process, and they stuff all these mixed up feelings into their (imaginary) backpack. When they get home to the safety of your warm empathic presence, (and they are tired and hungry!) all these feelings can come pouring out! Anything can be a trigger, and it can seem crazy that your child is melting down over something which seems insignificant to you.
Parents can be tempted to say to their child “it’s not acceptable to behave like that!” Or “Go to your room until you can behave better!” But the truth is, if your child could behave better they would! It’s their tangled, scary feelings that are causing what looks like “bad behaviour” to you.
Your child needs your help with these feelings.
Your warmth, your empathy, your caring presence, gives the child the safety they need to feel, express and let go of these feelings. You will find, if you can stay with them all the way to the end, that these feelings will pass and you will be amazed at the sunny, co-operative, happy child that comes out the other side of the storm!
All you have to do is listen (without trying to fix), empathise and be present and available. “Wow, that was really frustrating huh” “I can see how mad you are!” “Oh honey I’m so sorry that happened”. Even just your warm presence while they cry, can be enough.
Often, the thing they are initially upset about is not the core issue, and by staying with the process long enough, your child will spiral down through the layers of feelings and often get to the heart of what’s really bothering them. The beauty of this process is that they could be processing feelings from last week, or last year, or even when they were a baby. We don’t even have to know what it’s about. By simply staying with them, we are giving our child an opportunity to heal from past hurts.
Our child’s anger is often hard for us to be with.
Anger is usually a defence against feeling the more vulnerable feelings underneath. If you can stay present and accepting of your child while they rage, then they will get through their anger to the tears underneath. This is hard to do because your child’s anger triggers your anger! Especially if your anger wasn’t accepted when you were a child. If you were ignored, disapproved of, or told to go to your room, then your anger was not accepted. And it is hard to give to your child something that you never got.
But it gets easier with practice, and you can accept and acknowledge your own anger for yourself. All this takes is a moment of recognition, acknowledging to yourself “I am angry!” a really deep breath and some self-compassion and acceptance. It’s easier if you can see through your child’s anger to the hurt child underneath. If you can re-frame your thoughts, “my child’s in pain” “he’s having a hard time” or “she needs my help with her feelings”, you can be more empathic.
Being with meltdowns takes time and energy, but it saves time in the end!
If kids don’t get a chance to express their feelings and be received by you, then they can continue to be whiny and prone to meltdowns all evening, or all week! If you can give your child regular opportunities to release and process their feelings with your support, then you will find meltdowns happen less often, and your child will generally be happier and more co-operative.
When viewed this way, meltdowns are a wonderful opportunity to help your child process and release stored up pain. It’s like a big clearing out, and you will both feel happier and more connected as a result.