Big, wild, emotional reactions from children can be cause by a few different conditions. Sometimes the child feels fear, anger or sadness and needs to release that or sometimes the child has learned that freaking out works (that she will get what she wants if she blows up.)
The other, more common reason for big emotional outbursts is when the child hits a tipping point while in a compromised state—overtired, hungry, over stimulated or played out. When a child is sleepy and hungry, or has had it with sharing her favourite toy, she might not be able to tolerate that her colouring page is ripped and can’t be fixed.
If your little one starts shrieking, “FIX IT! Make the tear go away!!” and your attempts at rationally explaining to her that tape will help, but rips can’t be undone, the reptilian part of her mind has probably taken over.
This is the part that is responsible for protecting ourselves by making us ready to defend. In this state, the energy in our bodies goes from being calm and cool to pumping us up for fighting, shouting, jumping or running (called the fight-or-flight response). A person’s self-talk in this state might be something like this, “That’s it! I’ve had it with things going wrong!”
To help her make the shift from that irrational part of the brain to the part that is calm and rational, try these steps:
When a child (or parent) is in fight-or-flight, the first order of business is to reel in that response by slowing the breathing and heart rate down. (For parents, it is time to kick in your calm-down plan.)
It’s best to not try talking to a shouting person. If it doesn’t look like your child is going to be able to self-regulate (know what she needs to calm herself down), you’ll need to facilitate this for her.
Put your focus on slowing that irrational defense response and helping her feel safe and heard. A few ways to do this are: holding her close while drawing long lines down her back beside the spine, sitting close to her and doing some deep breathing—sometimes when a person hears slow breathing, she will start to do it, too, and opening your arms for a hug.
A great resource for more information about self-regulation is www.self-regulation.ca
If your child shrugs your calming efforts off, find a way to give her the need that she is missing. For example, you can quietly put some cut fruit on the table near her and walk away to get yourself a glass of water. Walking away gives your child a moment to see and consider the food in front of her, but removes the power struggle that you want her to eat.
When I know that my youngest child’s complete meltdown is because he is in dire need of a nap, I’ll quietly scoop him up and draw lines on his head from the crown of his head, over his forehead and down his nose. I slowly hold my hand over his eyes as I do this, which always makes them close. If I do this enough times, he will keep them closed. Let me know if this works for you, too!
If she takes the bait (accepts your hand on her back/ starts eating), then offer a nice long hug. Once she is all the way calm, it is time to train her to look for a solution.
You can say something like this, "Hmmm... the paper is ripped. Our options are to tape it or get a new one. Which do you like better?"
If your child is old enough to consider the options herself, you can word it like this, “Okay, that paper is ripped. What are our options now?”
A little while after your child has had a rest, been fed, and had time to regroup, explain to her what was happening in her body. Some children feel afraid of big, emotional outbursts so if you explain the process her body was in, that helps grow awareness and improves her ability to self-regulate next time. Please note that it might take several repetitions of these steps for a child to start her own calm-down plan—you might still need to facilitate it until she can take the reigns.
Start by using an “I see you…” statement to identify the feelings she had. You can try using language like this: “I saw you get very mad. The paper was ripped and you didn’t want that. Sometimes when we are very mad, our mind stops thinking straight so we have to help that part, our freak out part, calm down so our smart part can start working again. When we can think, then we know how to fix our problems.”
The mantra I use to help kids remember this is, “Calm first. Talk second.”
I use the terms “smart part” and “freak out part” to describe rational responses and irrational reactions—go ahead and find words that work for your family. An excellent book that explains all of this brain-talk in greater detail is THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD by Dr Dan Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD.
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