There’s no one way to have a meltdown.
Think about your children, they are playing together, using their combined big imaginations as they enter a world of pirates, mermaids, and roaring seas. Then, all of a sudden, they have differing ideas. “I am not walking the plank. You are!”
The back and forth ensues and before you know it, you have two escalating tots who are dug in and emotional. One child attempts to hit and destroy the fort they made while the other yells at you to leave them alone as they run to their room. And there you are, wondering which fire to put out first.
Research shows the importance of speaking our children’s love language, namely how they express and receive love, which requires us to notice and understand our child’s personality and unique heart. This article is meant to shine a light on another important facet of our children, their meltdown language, which requires us to notice and understand our child’s unique nervous system.
The Biology Of Meltdowns
When our children meltdown, we may not like the behavior we see, or we may not understand why our children meltdown so differently. One attacks and destroys and the other totally withdrawals. One melts and moves on and the other’s emotions seem to pour out for what feels like forever. It can be hard not to compare, judge, label, or let our fears blur the reality of who our children are. No matter what symptoms of dysregulation we witness, know those protective responses are there for a reason.
Children are born with certain parts of their brain fully developed - the brainstem and the limbic system, both of which are responsible for detecting threats and establishing feeling states. Because of this, when our children feel unsafe and/or experience emotional or sensory overwhelm, they are primed to fight, flight, or freeze. This isn’t a fault, it’s biology.
When we attempt to reason with a melting child, we are appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully developed yet. The prefrontal cortex comes online around age three and doesn’t reach maturation until early adulthood. What this means is that our children are essentially walking around with adult-sized threat-detection and emotional alert centers, and a child-sized control and regulation center.
So when your kids disagree about who walks the plank in their game, or they didn’t get the cookie they wanted, or they are overtired and off-routine, or fill in the blank with just about anything … the intensity of the feeling overwhelms their ability to organize and manage it. The pressure becomes greater than the lid and, to release the emotional tension, they melt.
In these moments, children need us to model safe, healthy, calming strategies that validate their feelings and steer their nervous system towards balance through a process called co-regulation. Each time we meet our children with safety and connection during their challenging moments, we create new circuits to the prefrontal cortex, and help them develop skills for managing emotions and behaviors.
Knowing Our Child’s Meltdown Language
Our brains are wired to look for the negative and the way we perceive our children influences the behaviors we see from them. When we know our child as too angry, too explosive, too defiant, too disrespectful, or too sensitive, it’s because we are expecting these behaviors and, therefore, unconsciously looking for them. Every time we observe behavior from our children that affirms our belief, we strengthen our fears, our criticisms, and our labels.
Often our perceptions and labels become the way our children see themselves - too angry, too explosive, too defiant, too disrespectful, too sensitive - which creates a world for them that says, “I’m not enough” … “My wants and needs are inconvenient and wrong” … “My feelings are contagious” … “I did bad and so I must be bad.”
All behavior is communication and meltdowns are communication of 1) an unmet need, 2) sensory under/overwhelm, 3) thwarted desire and/or 4) emotional overwhelm. When we recognize our child’s meltdown needs, we move away from making them wrong and give their unique nervous system a way to express itself.
Here are some common meltdown languages
1. Outward distress: Crying uncontrollably, screaming, growling
Validate your child’s experience without attempting to “fix” it or make it wrong. “Something about this ... isn’t the way you want it … feels hard … doesn’t feel good to you … you wish were different.” And then hold space for them as they allow their limbic system to fully process the emotional tension. When the crying or screaming slows, you may decide to touch on the sore spot. If your child continues to cry, it is a sign that they haven’t fully finished processing. If the crying stops, move in for closer proximity, physically and/or verbally.
2. Physical movement: Hitting, kicking, biting, stomping, destroying
This one can feel tricky for many parents. If your child is hurting themselves or others, it is important to set boundaries and manage the behavior while making space for your child’s nervous system to let off steam. This may look like ...
- Communicating safety while creating physical distance.
- Setting up the environment or using a physical barrier.
- Using fewer words and more body language.
- Helping your child with his/her body by saying something like, “My job is to keep you and me safe. Right now that looks like helping you to your room while I sit you with you. It’s okay to be mad. I won’t let you hit me.”
- Using calming strategies like a weighted blanket, bear hug, or isometric exercises.
- Reframing the behavior to allow for safe outlets, which you can read here.
3. Words of aggression: Saying phrases like, “You’re so mean” or “You’re the worst mom/dad ever!”
It feels hard not to take our kids’ sharp words personally. Yet, when we see this as a sign of dysregulation - an emotion that is erupting into behavior - we can choose tools that validate their experience and set boundaries for how we want to be treated.
- You may choose to say something like, “Those are big words. You must feel really upset to say that. I am here for you.” As your child feels seen and heard, they will shift into a more receptive state where you can uncover the emotions underneath his/her words, revisit what happened, and teach skills for the future.
- If you find yourself feeling triggered by your child’s verbal behavior, use a trigger worksheet to uncover your thoughts and feelings or say something like, “The words I am hearing do not feel good to me. I see something feels hard. Let’s figure this out together.”
4. Isolating/withdrawal - Zoning out, staring into space, moving body parts in repetitive movements, yelling things like, “Leave me alone” or “I am not listening.”
When my children tell me to leave them alone or say that they aren’t listening amid a red brain moment, I quietly thank their body’s wisdom, because what my child is communicating is that they are in a state of overwhelm. Deeply-feeling kids may back away from anything or anyone who gets too close to their vulnerability. These kids need your support but also some space. In these moments, use little to no words, staying near your child, offering respectful distance. Sometimes that distance is a few feet away, others it is across the room, and sometimes it is on the other side of a closed door where you silently peek in every few minutes to communicate that you are still there and will be there while it is hard. As your child’s brainstem and limbic system move through the emotion, they will begin to accept eye contact or closer proximity. Move slow and follow your intuition coupled with your child’s lead.
5. Suppressing: Budding of fears and anxieties, development of physical symptoms like belly aches and headaches, saying things like “I am fine” when upset.
Scripted stories and storytelling help integrate the emotional and logical brain regions to help children process small hurts and big stressors. And for those who tend to shut down, this is a helpful tool in teaching them to identify, understand and regulate their experience.
In addition, using a Time-In space with feelings posters and mantra cards can help those kiddos who tend to shut down when overwhelmed by playfully teaching them about emotions and calming strategies. Time-Ins not only build the neurosynapses in the brain but also normalize all emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. In fact, Time-Ins can be used with all love languages!
Just as there is no one right way to have a meltdown, there’s no one specific length. Meltdowns are wired in the body and influenced by their environment. To put it simply, the nervous system detects threats and emotional tension, and if children are unable to fully release the pressure, the small hurts will accumulate throughout the day and eventually come out later, bigger and louder.
One of the best gifts we can give our children is to speak their meltdown language and allow their emotional train to move fully through the tunnel, no matter how long it takes. It is then that we can transform a meltdown from being scary and lonely to one of safety and connection.