December 17, 2018

When Your Child Is Having a Meltdown: Tips for Keeping Your Cool

After the loss of a loved one, your child may become upset at circumstances that would normally feel minor. Although these meltdowns can feel distressing to parents, they often function as a powerful emotional release that can be beneficial to children.

We often encourage kids to talk about their grief feelings. However, some young children can’t verbally link feelings to their loss. Instead, they “melt down” in anger or sadness triggered by an unrelated situation.

These behaviors are an indication of nervous system dysregulation. Your child is expressing in an outward way what is happening internally at that moment. When children are dysregulated, they aren’t able to logically discuss the situation or problem-solve.

The following steps summarize the most effective way to respond to meltdowns and guide your child toward self-regulation. The first 3-4 steps may be enough for a preschooler, as young children process more with their bodies than verbally.

  1. Provide a calm and loving presence.

If possible, pause what you’re doing and move to be close to your child. Offer your undivided attention. Try to be genuinely curious about what’s happening, rather than focusing on immediately stopping the behavior.

  1. Name what you see.

Observe out loud what you notice about your child’s behavior and body language. “Jenny, you seem angry. I see you slamming your book on the table.”

  1. Validate the child’s experience.

Tell your child, “It makes sense to be mad sometimes. A lot of things in your life have been changing.”

  1. Offer sensory soothing to regulate the nervous system.

One way to help kids return to a regulated state is to offer a soothing sensory activity, such as:

  • Getting a big hug.
  • Chewing a crunchy food, like pretzels.
  • Squeezing and pounding Play-Doh.
  • Taking five slow breaths.
  1. Problem-solve together.

Instead of asking a child “why” they are behaving differently, try focusing on “how” to make it better or “what” could be different next time. You could offer to create a sensory station where your child can go when experiencing strong emotions.

A Meltdown Is Not an Emergency.

Although it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing when your child is very upset, the situation is rarely as urgent as it feels. When you react calmly, acknowledge needs and help with problem-solving, your child will be able to regain control of their behavior and reconnect with you.

Consult with a Grief Counselor.

If you are coping with changes in your grieving child’s behavior, you can speak with a licensed Kids Path counselor at no charge. Kids Path counselors offer free phone consultations to any adult in the community, including parents/caregivers. Simply call 336.544.5437 and ask to speak with a counselor. For additional resources on helping your child with grief, visit AuthoraCare’s resources for kids page.