In the middle of a child's meltdown
6 tips to help you keep your cool
by Katie Hickok-Mannebach, LMSW, LCSW, and foster parent
When a child in your care has been triggered and is entering a meltdown, your most effective response is to remain calm. If you can’t keep calm yourself, you won’t keep the situation calm.
I know this is easier said than done, especially in the moment. A child who is crying, yelling, or throwing things is not making logical, rational decisions. They’re thinking from their amygdala, the part of their brain that controls emotions and initiates the “fight or flight” response.
As the adult in the room, trying to diffuse the situation, you’ll need to think from your frontal lobes, the part of your brain that controls higher level functions like problem-solving and using good judgement. Don’t just tell a child to take deep breaths; get on their level and model it. Breathe with them. Your heart rate and adrenaline rush will slow. It’s important that you maintain your calm when the child isn't able to do that on their own.
These tips will help you keep your cool in the middle of a meltdown:
Don’t panic. Your instinct may be to call in reinforcements. That’s understandable, especially if this is the first time you’ve seen the child show this much big emotion. Unless the child is being violent, try to diffuse the situation one-on-one. If at all possible, decrease the audience to help remove oxygen from the flame. Go to a more private location or direct other children to leave the room so you can focus on the child’s immediate needs.
Designate a safe place in your home where it’s OK if the child tears it apart. A bedroom, for example, is often assigned to a child as their space. This removes a stressor for you if you know the space can be put back together later and the child won’t hurt himself.
Stay in the moment. A foster parent might say something like, “If you’re acting this way [in response to a seemingly small trigger], what are you going to do later? You’ll end up in jail.” This kind of rational argument is often an attempt to help the child understand the consequences of their behavior, but the child’s brain is unable to think past this moment in the meltdown.
Control your voice. If the child is yelling, don’t match their volume, pitch, or pace. Speak slowly and keep your voice steady, and the child will be more likely to come back down to your level. Try responding, “I want to hear you, but you’re so loud now that I can’t understand you. Can you meet me here?” Use a hand signal to show you lowering your volume.
Be mindful of touch. Your instinct might be to console the child with a hug or even to restrain them, but touch can be its own trigger. You will develop a level of comfort as you get to know the child and what level of touch they can tolerate. In general, don’t employ any touch that closes them in or restricts their movement. Stay near them but give them a few feet of personal space. If you need to block their path for safety, use your body as a barrier, not your hands.
Encourage physical movement. Ask questions about how the child physically feels. “How is your body feeling? Do you feel hot right now? Does your stomach hurt? Can you talk about that?” When children have a lot of adrenaline built up, physical activity can release tension and be calming. “Do you feel like you need to move? Can you move with me?” I’ve done pushups and jumping jacks with kids—movement that engages their largest muscles and doesn’t require much coordination. Movement can distract them from the loop that is playing in their mind and reconnect them to what is real in this moment, their own body.
Read more about how to respond to a child after a meltdown. This article is reposted from a 2017 Bethany blog.