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Uh oh, here comes the meltdown...

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I have a question for you. How many times a day as parents, caregivers or professionals do you have to self-regulate? Perhaps you start your day with yoga or a dog walk – intentionally promoting your own calm in the chaos. Or maybe half-way through the day you go for a run or a workout. Perhaps, when tensions at work are heightened you take a few deep breaths, gaze out of the window, or call a friend. Maybe you find your playlist and blast your favourite or feel-good artist (which in my case is always Fleetwood Mac or the Spice Girls).

They may seem little, but I bet if you take a moment to think about it, your 'go to' activity helps you calm. To de-escalate. To feel in control. To take a break. To smile.

At these pressure points, you have an emotional need that has to be met, and if that doesn’t happen, well, have the tissues or the armour at the ready as you know a volcanic eruption is on it’s way.

Everything I have just described makes us all uniquely human. As soon as we were born in to this wonderous but complex world, we have had to navigate a whole heap of emotions. With that in mind, it baffles me why as a society, we don’t focus more on meeting the emotional needs of children. On helping them to cope, and to understand the way their brain works, and how to regulate or gain a sense of control, leaving them feeling empowered and ready to continue with their day.

Of course, not every emotion is easily controlled and some days children, just like us, simply don’t feel their sparkly selves - and that’s fine. It's not possible to avoid every meltdown, particularly in younger children - neurologically, humans just aren't wired that way. But what a wonderful gift it would be if we showed children how to recognise when they are starting to feel heightened and overwhelmed. If we helped them understand what their most effective coping strategies are, and encouraged them to unleash their personal superpowers to diffuse a situation.

Here are ideas for ways to help children find their coping strategies

  • Every child is unique – what works for one may not work for another – treat each child as an individual and let them take the lead

  • When you sense emotions are brewing, help children to find the words to describe or label how they are feeling. "I can see that you're feeling..." or "I'm wondering if you're feeling.." Sometimes situations settle with a simple act of expression, and the satisfaction of knowing they've been listened to.

  • Observe. Watch and learn what the child’s preferred toy(s) is if they are feeling sad or stressed. Which cuddly friend brings them comfort when they are sad? Do they play make believe with a certain character? It may be that when emotions are heightened, a gentle intervention from Tigger or a magical fairy are required. (I talk about Tigger and fairies as they are Hallie’s best friends…your experience may of course be entirely different!)

  • At a moment of calm, or when you notice they are settled, encourage conversation and their own self-reflections. What do they enjoy? Is it a certain book, picking up a pencil to draw, climbing a tree or dancing around the living room to a song? Maybe it’s their much loved four-legged furry friend. What is it that makes them feel happy? If overwhelm sets in, remind them of their ability to smile with the help of whatever works for them. This doesn't mean forgetting what's upsetting them, but instead returning to it, (if needed), it during a moment of calm.

  • Encourage general emotional education in a child friendly way. Role play to try on different hats, read books, watch children's films. This is likely to lead to children exploring different emotions and empathy.

  • Sticking with the idea of self-exploration, try and identify their triggers and remember that they may change. Too much noise, lack of sleep, hunger, a change in routine, a certain activity….the list goes on and on. But having an understanding of triggers will help you and the child to be better prepared in managing their feelings.

  • Who makes them feel safe? Isn’t it wonderful to hear a reassuring voice or savour a hug from someone we love and trust. Similarly, children need an adult (or adults) who ground them. Be clear on who makes them feel safe and secure – you may need to call on the extra support one day.

  • Head outside. I know, you’re probably sick of me banging on all of the time, but, nature works miracles. Encourage those little bodies and minds to stop, be still and to notice. Talk about the sky, the leaves, the birds. See what shapes you can make from the clouds, or how many different types of flower you can spot. When fresh air and ‘wonder’ align, the conditions are perfect for enabling emotional regulation.

  • Focus on the breath – it really is our best friend. Not only is it our lifeforce, but it’s the most magical tool. Talk to children about their breath being a golden thread, or a colour, and about the need for that thread or colour to reach every part of their body. Ask where they are feeling tense - it's often tummies that feel unsettled. Take at least 3 deep, full breaths together. Doing this will help to quieten the emotional smoke alarm. Remind them that their breath is always with them and can be called upon at any time.

  • Don't be afraid to explicitly talk about ways to manage emotions and then co-create a visual aid that reminds children of their own personal coping strategies. Sit alongside the child; Write, draw, paint, collage - however the child wants to create their piece should be encouraged. It needs to be something that is meaningful to them, and ultimately serves as a reminder of ways in which they can find calm if they (or you) sense their feelings/emotions spiralling.

  • Have general conversations about emotional wellbeing in the same way you would physical wellbeing. Bottling things up and holding on to worries and anxieties has an incredibly negative effect. Children need to know it’s ok to talk about, and express their feelings and to have them validated. They also benefit from knowing that mental health and wellbeing needs to be pro-actively looked after. Role modelling this is one of the most effective strategies in helping children to regulate. It also gives the opportunity to talk about the magic children have within them, their superpowers, and the tools they can use to help them find balance.

  • Try and contain your emotions if a child you are with is heightened. I know, I know, this one can be so difficult, but co-regulation really does help. If you can remain calm and a few deep breaths, they will sense that you can ‘contain’ them emotionally. Older children may mimic your breathing and you will be a safe space for them to work though whatever it is they are feeling.

I really hope that this post is useful, but if you want to talk more about this topic, or explore coping strategies with a child you know, then feel free to get in touch.

I wish that educating children to better manage their emotional wellbeing was higher up society’s agenda, but hopefully, if we share knowledge and work together, we’ll get to a place where equipping children with ways to manage their emotional wellbeing is of the same importance as academic skills.

Images. - Unsplash

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