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De-Escalating a Meltdown

Written by: Catherine de la Rosa, M.S.W.
De-Escalating a Meltdown

On airplanes, we are taught to put on our masks first before helping others in a crisis. The same goes for managing a meltdown with little ones. This may mean stepping away first from the situation (assuming the child is safe), so that you can calm yourself down. Take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that your child is having a moment and they are not purposely giving you a hard time. They are learning the skills required to regulate themselves and it is in these moments that you are provided an opportunity to do teach those skills.

When you return to your child, it can be helpful to physically get on their level. Go ahead and kneel down or even sit so that you are eye level. This sends the message that you are aligned with them and makes your presence feel more welcoming.
Some children are able to listen and answer questions during these moments, while others are so dysregulated that talking and reasoning with them are just not possible. Modeling deep breathing and narrating what you’re doing can be very helpful. For example, as you take deep breaths you can say “I’m going to take some deep breaths to calm myself down.” You can even narrate saying, “I’m breathing in like I’m smelling flowers. And breathing out like I’m blowing out candles.” Do this for a few minutes as notice if your child starts to calm down.

For those children who enjoy physical touch, you can offer a hug. You can ask something like, “It looks like you’re having lots of big emotions, I’m wondering if you need a hug.” Some kids go for this, while others are very adamant that they do not need a hug. If the latter is your child, you can respond with “That’s okay, I’m not leaving. I’ll be right here.” The message that you want to send is “I see your feelings. They don’t scare me. I’m here for you.” Validation of their feelings is also important and narrating their feelings can also help children to gain the language to better communicate. For example, you may say, “You’re experiencing some big feelings right now. I wonder if you’re feeling angry.”

Setting up a “cool down corner” for kids in the home can also be helpful. This is different from time out in that it is not punitive. Rather it can be a space where they might have a “friend” (stuff animal) who can help model deep breathing and/or give comforting words to the child. There may also be stress balls there so that the child can squeeze something if they are feeling anger in their hands. Additional items for a cool down corner can include a bean bag chair, a blanket, books, sensory bottles, pinwheels to blow into, and/or coloring books.

The ultimate goal in managing tantrums is to demonstrate and provide healthy ways to regulate feelings. We cannot prevent our children from getting angry, but we can offer skills necessary to manage those inevitable moments.