Behaviour & Emotions

Epic meltdowns part 1: What’s really going on

Epic meltdown2

You know that moment when you look at your child in the clutches of their epic meltdown and you think to yourself, how on earth did we get to this? In that exact moment – when your child is exploding in your face and it all feels utterly overwhelming – it would be nice to know that there is another way to handle things that doesn’t feel as stressful for you both.

It might have been the way you cut their apple or the way you walked home from the park. Or it could have been when you asked your child to share or when you asked them to wait their turn. There are so many factors that can set off a big meltdown for your child but, regardless of age, stage or reason, you can safely assume that underneath every epic meltdown there is a stack of big emotions trying to escape.

You can safely assume that underneath every epic meltdown there is a stack of big emotions trying to escape.

When a child is ‘triggered’ into their rage, it’s sure to get our attention – and our blood pumping a whole lot faster. One of our biggest challenges, as parents, is learning to respond to our child without being triggered ourselves. Because when we, as parents, are able to see the meltdown with less of our own anxiety, guilt, overwhelm and anger getting in the way, we’re in a much better position to ease the situation and help our child. In other words, when we can calmly respond to our child instead of getting all triggered ourselves, we are in a much better position to resolve things.

Before we respond to our child’s epic meltdown we need to PAUSE, even for a brief moment, to ask ourselves what is really going on…

Is this about my child’s temperament?

Some children are very sensitive – but much of their sensitivity can go undetected. They may hate loud noises, or too many people around them. Or, they may love routine so much that they feel upset, out of control or powerless when anything changes. They may be very particular about the way their clothing feels, or the texture of their food. Maybe your child notices all the happenings going on and is impacted by everything; the smell in the room, the way the teacher got cross with a student, the tension they felt between their parents last night, the uncertainty of how swimming will go, the dislike of having to join the walking school bus every day, the unfairness of finding out that their plans for an ice-cream are not going to work and the reminders that they have not done what they should have. For sensitive children, they are bombarded by big and intense emotions that they may hold on to during a daycare or school day. For some of our sensitive kids, it almost feels like they are holding their breath when they are on their ‘best behaviour’ throughout the day. Then later, when they are tired or triggered, they unleash all their ‘worst behaviour’ on their nearest and dearest, their parents.

Am I expecting too much of my child?

Some children are also carrying an extra load. On the one hand they feel angry that their parent has denied them something they wanted. Then on the other hand, they feel a sense of shame for feeling angry. It’s like the feeling gets two hits – and perhaps they start to tell themselves that they are a mean kind of person to think such horrible thoughts about their parent. Keep in mind, all this is going on under the surface. Most children, and certainly many adults, are thinking like this but unable to articulate what is going on. It is like they are bruised or sunburnt – the slightest touch (correction, direction or request) hurts.

Is my child reacting to criticism?

When you listen to a voice that chides and criticises, you get very edgy and tired – even if that voice is your own self talk.

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There are also children who struggle to handle correction. They have set the bar very high for themselves. They want to do some things perfectly – not a mistake in sight. (This does not usually relate to how they keep their bedrooms!) They are used to listening to a voice inside their heads, a voice that is more discouraging than encouraging. The chatter might sound a bit like; ‘Don’t get any spelling words wrong, you have to be the best.’ ‘Get it right the first time – otherwise don’t do it.’ ‘People are watching you – don’t let them see you look silly.’ ‘You’ve ruined your picture again – why are you so useless? Throw it away!’

When you listen to a voice that chides and criticises, you get very edgy and tired – even if that voice is your own self talk. You feel hopeless if you are not doing a great job and before you know it, you are yelling and shouting at people who care about you. Perhaps a child feels that they have let their parent down, and they don’t know how to ask for help. Perhaps deep down they feel that they are very bad – after all, they are always in trouble and their meltdowns can be enormous with shouting, swearing, hitting and hurting all directed at close family members.

Is my child just responding to my stress?

Often our kids are mirror reflections of what we are feeling ourselves. It would always amaze me how my kids would ‘kick off’ just when I had the least resources to handle it. If I was stressed or preoccupied with something and withdrew into my head to work something out, that would be the exact same moment my kids would press in and need my attention. It turns out that is no coincidence. Our kids can sense us taking our focus off them (even in our thoughts) and this triggers their alarm system to draw close to us again – hence they find very creative ways to get, and keep, our attention, even if that involves an epic meltdown.

Big behaviours are the result of big emotions. When big feelings brew into a big stormy meltdown, the most helpful first step is to pause and consider what might be really going on underneath it all, in the depths of our child’s emotional world. The next helpful step is to calmly respond. But just how does one stay calm when faced with a an epic meltdown? Good question, and the topic we turn to next: Epic meltdowns part 2: Calming the storm.


Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Family Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 20 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.

Jo Batts

Jo Batts

For Jo, relationships are at the heart of whānau. She’s a counsellor, a strengths coach, a parent and a partner. Jo's down-to-earth approach helps people to develop the practical tools to build healthy relationships for everyday life.

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