The first thing to know is that meltdowns are normal among children, especially when they are between the ages of one and four. In fact, there is a physiological explanation for meltdowns: before a person’s prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that modulates cognitive functions—fully develops, children have limited capacity for self-control and meltdowns commonly result as the brain’s response to a perceived threat. In other words, meltdowns are a normal part of child development, which means that learning skills to manage them is important for every parent.
What Are Meltdowns?
There are two parts of the brain involved in your child’s meltdown: the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala processes emotions such as fear or anger, and the hypothalamus controls unconscious functions such as heart rate and temperature. That’s why your child experiences a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, or tense muscles, during meltdowns. And, since their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, trying to reason with them during a meltdown is appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully functioning. This knowledge can help us understand that when a child is dysregulated, they are not being bad on purpose. They are overwhelmed.
Often, children are triggered by fear—whether by a memory of something that has happened in the past, the unknown, or a remembered noise or scent—and the physical manifestation of this fear response to a threat can resemble a meltdown.
Plan for Meltdowns
Since we’ve established that meltdowns are a common part of child development, parents are smart to plan for them. We can assume that our child’s next meltdown is inevitable and implement strategies to reduce the frequency and intensity of meltdowns. For this, we can use empowering principles based on Trust-Based Relational Intervention®. For example, ecologically, we can provide transitional warnings, routines and rituals, familiar artifacts, predictable schedules, and regulation checks. Physiologically, we can also monitor hydration and nutrition (has our child had water and a protein snack in the last 2 hours?), sensory needs (are we in a space that is overwhelming?), adequate sleep, and regular physical activity.
Managing Our Emotions
When a child becomes dysregulated, the best thing parents can do is mirror calmness. This means that before engaging with an upset child, we must regulate our own stress response. Managing our emotions may mean taking a few deep breaths or calling a partner for support. We need to remember that behavior is the language of an unmet need and being with our child when they are at their worst is a powerful relational connection tool. There’s an overall purpose in being with our children in the hard moments; there can be better connection on the other side of the meltdown. When we are ready to address our child, we need to assume the role of thermostat, not thermometer.
Managing Our Child’s Emotions
At the beginning of this blog, we mentioned that meltdowns are the brain’s response to a perceived threat. Thus, our initial goal needs to be to diffuse the perceived threat. We must respond with calmness, warmth, and empathy, often through our actions more so than words. Our body posture, facial expressions, and vocal tone all matter as we strive to mirror regulated emotions. If we crouch down and make eye contact, our child can feel that we are listening and engaged. Ideally, we have also started planning for meltdowns and taught our child coping skills so they can self-soothe. Deep breaths are a great place to start.
Third Time’s the Charm
No two meltdowns are the same, so the tools we use to tame them must vary, too. The first thing we try won’t always do the trick, so we must be prepared to try a second and a third. We can start with deep breaths, switch to soothing sounds, and then suggest stretching poses. We can change the environment, create distractions, or offer hugs. We need to be students of our child seeking to understand what the trigger was, is the loving response. Our child is truly not trying to make us crazy or ruin our day. And if a particular tool is ineffective on one occasion, it doesn’t mean our approach is ineffective. It means we need to try another tool this time.
The principles of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®) are enormously helpful for understanding children’s brain development and learning how and when to empower, connect with, and correct your child. We recommend checking out a few TBRI® classes to give your family the skills you need to thrive!