The perfect balance between logical and emotional feelings is to be half thinking and half feeling. Imagine a circle cut in half with the thinking bit at the top and the feeling bit at the bottom. When strong feelings rise, they start to overpower the thinking half of the circle – resulting in what’s called ‘emotional flooding’. At that point we lose the power to think clearly, so there is absolutely no point in trying to be reasonable or logical with someone having a meltdown. Instead of trying to take them on and battling your own emotions as well as theirs, let them have that meltdown and wait until another time to talk things through. Trying to reason, using logic, or - worst of all - attempting to ‘fix” someone’s problem whilst they (and possibly you too) are emotionally flooded, is pointless. They won’t be able to function rationally and actually listen to what you are saying – and you might not be able to either. Instead, things will simply get worse.
So what can you do?
Acknowledging those feelings and allowing them to be expressed safely is the only way to help someone deal with a meltdown, whatever age they are. An adult in meltdown is simply releasing their inner two year old - perhaps an inner child that wasn’t allowed to express him or herself or whose feelings were never acknowledged earlier in life. Two and fourteen are sometimes scarily similar ages with the same behaviours, tantrums and demands for independence. Put simply, both want to be doing things and going places which parents aren’t always ready to allow. I often suggest that the parents of two year-olds make notes of their children’s triggers and record which strategies they use work best, so they can dig them out and revisit them when the child reaches fourteen – history tends to repeat itself!
With an upset teenager, if you can keep your cool, listen and not shout back, breathe and be with them whilst they go through it, they will end up feeling really supported when calm is restored. I once sat with my daughter whilst she screamed and cried about not being able to cope with her exam workload. I actually said nothing at all and just sat quietly beside her. After about twenty minutes she blew her nose, said “thanks for listening mum” and went off to do some more revision!
1. Breathe in counting to 7 and then breathe out counting to 11 - do this at least 3 times.
2. Remind yourself that it is OK to feel angry, hurt or sad about not getting what you want or having to do something you find boring (at any age!).
3. Acknowledge the feelings behind noisy, angry words. Respond with “You sound very sad / angry / hurt“. Empathy works.
4. Remember that when feelings are first acknowledged it often gives the person melting down permission to shout even harder or cry more loudly before calming down. This is a GOOD thing.
5. If they are old enough, give them time to respond or to carry on shouting/crying. Let them let it all out.
6. Keep breathing in for 7 and out for 11.
7. There may be a point in a child or young person’s meltdown where the offer of a cuddle might be taken up – and it’s always worth offering one! If rejected, tell them that you love them and that when they DO want a cuddle, you’re ready – and willing - to provide one.
8. Try to cut out the WORDS and listen to the FEELINGS - “I HATE YOU!” or “I WISH YOU WEREN’T MY MUM/DAD!” is just noise – and really they know that too. Mentally translate what they mean without taking it personally and try reflecting it back. So: “You’re angry because you really want that biscuit/sweet/toy…” or “You’re feeling resentful and untrusted because I won’t let you stay out late at the party.”
9. If you start to feel angry yourself, however strange it might seem, try lying down on the floor. It’s actually very hard to be angry lying on your back!
10. Keep breathing - in for 7 and out for 11
11. Rather than send a child to their bedroom - remove yourself from the confrontation instead. Go into another room and stay there.
12. Keep breathing. In for 7 – out over 11
13. If you’ve ever felt exhausted or upset by your child’s behaviour (and you will), try watching them for a while whilst they sleep and think about all the funny, lovely, special things they do. It’s why you love them so much!