Confronting a Meltdown: Get Results Without Exploding

When a child has a meltdown or a tantrum, parents can get results with a detached and neutral response. When dealing with challenging behaviors, our triggers might create strong emotions within ourselves. We might feel that we need to “match” the behavior with an “equal” response or even try to “top” our child. As parents, we feel like we need to “win” during intense behaviors. However, we can “win” by being the calm and responsible adult in the room with our child during a power struggle.

What Is a “Power Struggle”?

“Power struggles” can often occur between kids and parents. Kids desire control over their environment, yet they might not have the skills necessary to access their needs. When we get into power struggles with our kids, we feel like we are in an argument about “who is in charge” or “who is the boss.” A power struggle occurs when two parties in conflict attempt to dominant the other to “win” the conflict and restore order. When power struggles occur in the home or with our kids, they can escalate

Power struggles might escalate into a tantrum or a meltdown, where we feel manipulated into “caving in.” However, as parents, we can remain grounded in the situation by remembering that our kids attempt to communicate their needs with this behavior. Parents might feel that if they “give in” to the tantrum, they will be unintentionally reinforcing the behavior. We might lose focus on resolving the issue and turn the focus to maintaining our authoritative status as parents. However, resolving the issue needs to be our primary concern during this moment.

Context Is Crucial

When responding to a child or teen experiencing a meltdown, context is critical to navigating the situation. Understanding context also helps us, as the adult in the situation, remain calm during the tantrum. Consider the following and respond accordingly:

  • Is the meltdown occurring at home or in public?
    • When at home, we have more time to “wait things out.”
    • While out in public, however, a child might feel embarrassed or ashamed after the fact.
    • Depending upon how disruptive a tantrum is, a child might not be allowed in a specific space again or might be stigmatized by people in the community.
  • Is there a safety issue with this tantrum?
    • For example, if a child is acting aggressively toward others or themselves, we might need to “cave in” to bring an end to the current situation.
    • Remember that we can always go back, examine what occurred at that moment, and find proactive and preventative solutions.
  • Consider biological explanations for the behavior:
    • Look for the primary, physiological needs, like hunger, thirst, rest, etc.
    • If this behavior is out of the ordinary, a physical health issue, like illness or pain, might explain intense behavioral outbursts.

The Myth About “Giving in”

Many parents feel that “giving in” to a tantrum is like giving up their power or being “weak.” However, depending upon the context, we might need to “give in” now for the long-term benefit and safety of our child (or others). Our first response to a meltdown is not “etched in stone.” Often, parents might believe that they will set up a pattern for their child’s future behavior if they give in once. We cannot expect ourselves to get everything right the first time. We will make mistakes, especially when our emotions take over during highly intense behavioral episodes. We can reflect on the incident and plan for better outcomes in the future.

For example, if a child has a meltdown over wanting to go out with their friends on a Friday night after we’ve said “no,” how might we respond to this situation?

  • Have we laid out clear reasons ahead of time, or are we creating a rule “in the moment”?
  • If we have talked to our child before this incident about not being allowed out due to poor grades or behavioral concerns, we might need to wait this out and remind our child that they agreed to these expectations. 
  • However, if we just came up with the expectation that our child stays home to study every Friday, we might need to be reasonable and find a compromise.

As parents, we always need to be the calm and rational person in the room during meltdowns and tantrums. When our emotional responses escalate along with our child’s tantrum, we might bring more energy into the situation and struggle to resolve the issue. To remain calm, remember:

  • Think of the bigger picture. Our child feels like this situation is the “end of the world.” We know that this is just a passing moment.  
  • Take deep breaths. Counting to ten while taking deep breaths can help us control our emotions during a meltdown.
  • Take a break. If we have a parenting partner to help us, we might need to take a break from the situation.
  • Focus on solving the problem. Parents can lose sight of the situation when trying to maintain an authoritative presence. We can focus on finding solutions to the current crisis instead of trying to control our child.

When a child has a meltdown, parents might feel that they need to maintain an authoritative presence during the situation. Our emotions might escalate along with our child, and we might find ourselves in “screaming matches,” resulting in more chaos in the home. By letting go of our need to be “in charge,” we can focus on helping our child find solutions. Ultimately, our kids may not have the skills necessary to meet their needs. They need our guidance and support when experiencing a meltdown because, to them, this current situation feels like the “end of the world.” When a child’s behavior continues to disrupt our homes, we might need additional support to help our children. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here to support both kids and parents manage challenging behaviors. We have resources and parenting classes to help you keep peace in your home. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.

Leave a Reply