A Meltdown “Recipe”: How to deal with frustration without losing your sanity (or mind?)

Maude Le Roux, OTR/L – Article for “Adoption Today” in July / August 2018

The ideal of a secure relationship between child and parent/caretaker is wonderful but sometimes life offers us messy situations. What are ways that you can sustain a warm, loving, and nurturing relationship in the face of meltdowns or outbursts of seemingly “irrational” behavior? How might we instruct, and set boundaries for safety and security, while also maintaining the love and care necessary for the child, and caretaker, to thrive?

Typically, the first three years of a child’s life who is not exposed to trauma is “lived” in the right brain, the hemisphere more oriented toward emotions; the initial fight- and-flight mechanism we’re born with is gradually replaced by feelings of security while we’re also developing mindfulness of others. After these first years our left “rational” brain develops; our logical thinking skills increase, and we become more organized within ourselves and in our ability to relate to others. Our developing years—up to about age 24— are spent steadying the pathways into full function, building our capacity to regulate our emotional adaptive response to situations.

When trauma occurs and this growth is disrupted, the tendency is to fall back on the right brain as a first response to experiences. Triggers in the deep subconscious brain maintain the primitive state of fight-and-flight, making it is more difficult for the left brain to balance out the emotional experiences with logic and reasoning. Children exposed to trauma can remain a “victim” of the abuse, neglect or adverse past experiences, and the system of trust in a secure base is thwarted. Each new experience, then, is filtered through these past experiences leaving the caretaker feeling out of control when faced with these situations.

  1. One practical response could be to develop a “plan” with the child, when s/he is calm, about what to do when an emotional meltdown is triggered. Together, caregiver and child could create a safe space in the home, name it, and keep positive items, which may only be found there. Over time this space provides physical structure for the child to access when they feel anxious, upset, or angry. Toddlers would have to be guided there in time of need. The concept is “time in,” not “time out” so that the space comes to represent safety and security.
  2. The caregiver stays with the child in this area for safety and support but tries not to touch the child or take over the experience of the emotion. Yes, some children may have a harder time than others sitting still, and thrash about in their anger. The caregiver would need to support the child physically and keep both parties as safe as possible. Then the caregiver should let go and simply be present for the child. The caregiver should simply repeat phrases such as, “I am here,” and “I will not leave you” or “we will stay here until you are ready.” As the child is now mainly in the right/emotional brain, access to rational thought with language is not available at this time. The child’s upset behavior will escalate if you talk more; you want to model calmness while giving her/him time to calm down.
  3. It can be tough for a caregiver to understand that the child’s meltdown is more about his/her self, and not a personal attack on the caregiver. Phrases such as “I hate you,” “you are not my mother,” or “you will never be my mother” are hard to hear. “Go away” or “get away from me” can also be hurtful and difficult not to respond to in the moment. It is necessary to train yourself as a caregiver to understand that these words are meant to hurt. They are coming from a hurting child. It’s  not that you are doing “wrong” in loving them, but more that they are feeling wronged by experiences outside of your control. You have only this moment and cannot change past experiences. During these episodes, continue to model security, try to remain as neutral as possible and not shout back (even though you may feel totally justified in doing so). Softly repeat that you will be there for him or her.
  4. Once the child has calmed in some fashion and is ready leave the safe space, the caregiver should remark on the child’s physical state, observing how s/he had calmed down. This could be, “you are not kicking any more” or “you are not breathing so hard anymore”; something that would help the child recognize their own power to regulate the next time. This may take some time to establish (most of our parents say it takes about 2 weeks to really sink in). The key is consistency as the child needs to learn to trust this sequence.
  5. Once the child is calm, allow some time, then suggest you go back together to finish the project or task s/he was engaged in. You might look for an easier way to do the task; the intention is to ensure success. The child may melt down again. In that case, simply take the child back to the safe space. Start this process over a weekend when you have nothing else planned. You will need time (and patience) so try not to start  when you are in a rush. After each successful experience of dealing with your child’s trigger(s), hug and praise her/him for their ability to be calm and complete the task successfully.
  6. Later, in a quiet, more amicable moment, you may pull the child toward you and let him/her know you want to discuss what happened earlier that day. This should not be punitive, but a warm and understanding discussion, acknowledging that emotions are hard, and difficult to control.
  7. The most important part of this “recipe” is that the child in the safe space starts to understand they can calm themselves, they don’t need others to control their own emotions or body. The caregiver models self-regulation; calm in the midst of the storm. This gets easier as caregivers realize they don’t have to “control” their child’s emotions, but rather provide the containment within which the child can experience safety and security.

Maude Le Roux is an occupational therapist with private practice in Glen Mills, PA. She is an international trainer in multiple different modalities including attachment and sensory processing and serves on the board of ATTACh in the United States.