When Children Have Big Emotional Outbursts

It's hard for anyone, much less a child, to take constructive feedback and listen to reason or act in a way that is logical when they are flooded with negative emotions.

You likely have personal experience with this—when you've been so upset that you just couldn't think straight.

There is science to this—a reason you cannot think straight when you're flooded with emotions.

The part of your brain that is emotional and reactive is very different than the part of your brain that is systematic and logical. You cannot tap into the logical part of your brain when the emotional, reactive part of your brain has taken over.

Your thoughts and your emotions always match.

When you are experiencing a huge, negative doomsday, destructive emotion, you are naturally flooded with equally catastrophic thoughts.

When you understand that it isn't possible to have a reasonable discussion when emotions are running high, you can change your approach to dealing with kids when they are having a meltdown.

Here is a five-part strategy ...

Step One: Meet them with patience. When you can model the calm during the storm, you can create a really wonderful paradigm for your own children to handle big emotions in the future. When you show them that their big emotions are acceptable—that you can handle them—they feel more comfortable confiding in you, and they will be more likely to remain calm when other people present their own big emotions. 

There is another reason for trying to remain calm: You cannot reduce your children’s anger by giving them your own anger. You cannot calm their frustration by meeting them with your own frustration. It won’t work. Two people having big emotions will just escalate a situation.

Step Two: Confirm that you recognize their emotions. Let your children know you are listening. This might sound like:  

  • “I can see how angry you are.” 
  • “Yes, I can tell how upset that made you.” 
  • “I would like to talk to you about this when you are calm, so I’m not going to respond to that right now, but I want you to know that I’m listening to you and I understand you feel like you hate me right now.”  

Your child’s emotional meltdown might last quite a while. Just remember that it’s their brain letting all those ugly-feeling thoughts and emotions out.

Step Three: Help them shift into a better mood. Eventually, your child will start to calm down a little bit, and this is your time to help them shift into a better mood. Get them to do something physical. Go for a walk . Get them to take a bath. Do something—anything—that allows them to feel better.

Step Four: Wait. This requires your best judgment. Children are not going to have as much access to solutions-based conversations as adults will. Their brains aren’t as developed, and they don’t have as much experience getting their own needs met, so don’t attempt to have a solutions-based conversation until you really think your child has calmed down.Let your child scream all sorts of horrible things at you, and when they calm down, you might hug them, go for a walk, and then go home and have dinner without further conversation.

Step Five: Revisit the conversation and help them get their needs met. At some point, when you really believe your child has calmed down, which might be minutes, hours, or even days, it’s time to revisit the conversation and help them get their needs met.  

Parents often think it is worse to bring up something negative, so they avoid the subject and hope it doesn't rear its ugly head. But when your child has truly calmed down, you can revisit the conversation from a solutions-based perspective. When you and your child can revisit a conflict with clear heads, you can identify needs and ways to get them met. It’s where you and your child can begin to appreciate each other’s perspectives, and it is where you can find compromises absent the flood of emotions that were clouding your child’s thoughts in round one.

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