Staying Calm as a Parent: Managing Meltdowns
When your child is having a tantrum or a meltdown the importance of staying calm as a parent cannot be understated. If you are managing a tantrum, you want your child to quickly and effectively realise that choosing this communication tool is not going to get them what they want or their parent’s attention. Keeping calm helps this goal. If you are managing a sensory based meltdown, your child is out of control and their sympathetic nervous system has triggered a “fight or flight” response. This is scary, uncomfortable, and isolating for your child. Staying calm as a parent helps them not only in the moment, but as they are processing what happened after the fact.
Knowing this is one thing, but controlling our own stress response as a parent in the moment is extremely challenging. Seeing your child out of control can be terrifying and painful. Here are some techniques to try in the moment.
1. Talk yourself through what is going on: If it is a tantrum and it is age appropriate, remind yourself that this is a healthy normal response to a child not getting their way. Going through the tantrum process will help lead to healthy responses as your child develops. If it is a meltdown, remind yourself that your child is struggling. They are in a state of nervous system overwhelm and that they are out of control. Your job as a parent is to keep everyone safe and to be there to support after the meltdown is over. Focusing on the facts, even saying them quietly to yourself, helps keep you calm and in control.
2. Breathe: Watching your child struggle, especially if it is public, leads to all kinds of emotions including fear, anxiety, frustration, and sadness. Many of these feelings can trigger your blood pressure to rise and your own fight or flight response to kick in. Taking slow calm breaths is one way to calm your body down and allow you to stay in control.
3. Remind yourself of your plan and then focus on it: If your child has frequent meltdowns it is essential to have a plan of how to prevent what to do in the moment, and what to do after. If you need support making this plan, reach out to someone like myself, an ADHD/Behaviour coach, or an Occupational Therapist, a Counsellor, or a Behaviour Analyst. In the moment focus on your plan and check in to make sure you are following the plan that you made when things were calm.
4. Take a Break: If you can feel yourself losing control and the above strategies aren’t working any more. Take a break. If your child is in a safe space, step out of the room to collect yourself. If you have another supportive adult available, tap yourself out and let them come in and support with fresh energy. Even if your child starts to escalate further with your departure, leaving to take care of your needs and calm down is better than getting escalated in front of them.
5. Take care of yourself after. Managing meltdowns is very hard on a parent’s nervous system. After the meltdown is over, your child is safe, and you have taken care of their emotional needs it is essential that you take care of yours. Take a bath, move your body, read a book, talk to your support system (this could be friends and family or a counsellor or behaviour coach).
In addition to having strategies to use in the middle of and after a meltdown it is essential that parents managing challenging behaviour have a day to day plan to support their own nervous systems. Parents with a calm, regulated, balanced system are more able to access their behaviour management tools in the moment. It is way too easy as parents to focus so entirely on our children and their emotional, sensory, and behavioural needs that we forget about what we need. But, it is important to remember that when we as parents are calm and happy we are much more effective at parenting our children in the ways that they need.
Day to day strategies to help maintain calm are:
1. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: Try taking an online course, add an app to your phone, or take a local class once a week. Many studies show the positive impacts of incorporating mindfulness and meditation into our lives. It may feel like you don’t have time, but even a 10 minute meditation via an app once a day can make a significant difference to your daily stress levels.
2. Tapping: If you struggle with stress and anxiety, I can’t recommend tapping enough. Tapping is also known as EFT or the Emotional Freedom Technique. It is a combination of Chinese acupressure and modern psychology. It is research based and studies show that tapping helps put the body back into the parasympathetic nervous system response (relaxed). This reduces cortisol (stress) and even boosts the immune system. My favourite resource for tapping is, www.thetappingsolution.com. Check out this site for books, videos, and details. The best part is that tapping is quick, free, and can be done anywhere, aka perfect for parents.
3. Exercise: I know that exercising regularly as a busy parent often seems impossible. But the impacts on decreasing cortisol and increasing our happy neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin can’t be understated. Even just taking your kids out for a daily walk before bedtime routine makes a difference.
4. Time in Nature: Countless studies have shown us that being in nature, or even looking at a picture of nature will reduce stress, anger, fear, and help us feel calmer and happier. Try to find the time to get outside throughout your day and even include plants and images of nature in your indoor environment to benefit from this calming strategy.
If you are struggling to stay calm as a parent and even reading this list is overwhelming then please don’t hesitate to reach out to your partner, family, friends, or local support services to get help. Sometimes having a coach or therapist to work with to help you lay out a plan for your child’s behaviour or your own mental health makes all the difference. In this day and age of information at our fingertips, it is easy to feel like, “I should be able to figure this out myself.” I am here to say that you don’t have to! Even I access my colleagues and community supports when facing challenging behaviour in my home. Sometimes an outside set of eyes and ears to bounce ideas off of and to see things from another perspective makes all the difference.
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