How to manage your child’s meltdown

One question that parents of intense kids ask me all the time is how to manage meltdowns. It seems like we should be able to prevent them from happening, right? I mean, a lot of people spend big bucks on therapy, and medication, and books trying to figure something out…with very little bang for those bucks. Two of my current coaching clients are focusing on helping their daughter once the meltdown starts. After all, if we can’t prevent them from happening, we can at least learn to not make them worse. Or, can we?

Yes, we absolutely can take steps to prevent the quick escalation that occurs when we try to nip a meltdown in the bud. I just finished reading No-Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., and it highlights the latest findings in brain science to help parents do just that.  In fact, the subtitle is “The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me is the fact that once a child is in meltdown mode, their brain is being controlled by the amygdala, which means it’s in fight or flight mode. No amount of reasoning, lecturing, or punishing is going to help the child calm down. In order to calm down, the child’s brain needs to sense CONNECTION, which tells it that it is safe and does not need to be in fight or flight mode. This seems counterintuitive! Comfort a child who is in a tantrum? Yup. Connect with and soothe a child in a meltdown? Yup.

I think back to the days when my son was young and how I would isolate him in his room until his rage had subsided. Oh, how I wish I had known what No-Drama Discipline teaches: that the best way to calm the chaos is to connect. That staying close, assuring him that I was there if he needed me, and that I could see how hard it was for him, would help him out of his lower brain and into his higher functioning. Then, and only then, would he be able to take in any learning about better ways to handle his frustration.

We think that if we stay close while they are misbehaving, without trying to teach them right then and there, we are “giving in” to them. We need to reframe this misconception. They do not do this on purpose. It is not a zero sum game, with winners and losers. And by “giving” them the comfort and connection they so desperately need, we help them out of the chaos and into their rational brain. And that’s a true win-win.

Do you stay close and allow for connection during meltdowns? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.


  • Kerry says:

    Hi Nancy
    I have this book on my Kindle : ) Ah, now to find the time to read this. I actually do what you talked about when my son is in a tantrum. I’m so glad I am doing something right! I actually can’t make eye contact or talk to much (by trial and error) until I sense a slight calming. I do say those things you mentioned, initially, but I keep it pretty cool at first. I say “mamas here when you feel a little better and are ready for a hug” I sense when the time is right and I empathize and offer a hug. It really does work…But..and its a big “but” I would love to know how to handle the aggression my son gives us. He hits, kicks, scratches etc. He occasionally gets the dog. We are very hyper vigilant bit not perfect. Luckily I have a great dog who is as gentle as can be. Again, this is a rare occurrence. We so all the gentle things..”I won’t let you hit me” while gently blocking his arms. It’s gotten so bad, that as we move away to avoid what feels like an attack, he rolls towards us, again trying to pinch or scratch etc. We move..and he rolls. I am at a loss. We have a behaviorist coming next week. Not only is my son intense/spirited, he was also drug exposed in utero to two very harsh drugs, daily. He also survived an overdose. We are his very blessed adoptive mama and daddy. I do think the drugs effected him. I think his little nerves got jangled. I was told he may feel like he has no control. He’s 26 months old. We are over the moon with joy, as it took us 10 years to be parents! he a handful. Sorry this is so long

    • Nancy Rose says:

      How great that you intuitively knew to connect with your son in these moments. You absolutely are doing things right! As for the aggression,your approach sounds good, but of course every situation is unique. I commend you for seeking help and hope the behaviorist (not sure what that is) can give you some insight. Do you have a good resource for the issues from being drug exposed in utero?

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