How to Calm Angry Meltdowns
I bet you opened this parenting article with a sense of urgency and relief?
“Omg, thank fuck! How do I stop my child from having angry meltdowns?! IM READY!”
I know the title says it’s about calming an angry child, but it’s a sneaky title because this is really just about how to encourage young children to calm themselves.....
I know right? “fuck.” *Throws computer our window.*
I get it. In all honesty, this really isn’t a quick and easy fix (if there even is such a thing). It takes work, practice.. tears, maybe some wine and a bath at the end of a
Try some of these strategies. Depending what you choose, maybe even all of them! These strategies can be incredibly effective if implemented properly, consistently and if the children are encouraged to try, adapt and experiment!
There are a few strategies because there is obviously no ‘one right way’ for stopping an anger meltdown in children. What works for one child may not work for another. That’s why learning how to calm themselves may be quite a long-term project, it takes time, patience and practise to try different methods and ideas.
3 ‘not so simple’ steps toward calmness
- Teach children to identify and understand their own emotions
- Teach calming strategies
Anyone can get angry given certain conditions, but some people manage their anger more effectively than others. It’s the same for children. Most young children will get angry, but there are great variations in how often it occurs and how extreme the anger becomes. It might be due to personality or because tantrums generally lead to them getting what they want. It might be due to genetic and environmental factors. It might be the normal process of learning to deal with their own emotions. But it might also be due to speech delays, where a child becomes frustrated because they can’t communicate what they’re feeling or what they want. It also might be due to sensory processing issues, where a child experiences a bombardment of sensory stimuli that is overwhelming and so they lash out.
As adults, we need to observe our children trying to understand what triggers frustrated behaviours. We shouldn’t just assume they’re naughty, spoiled, tired or seeking attention. If we are going to help our kids learn to calm themselves, we need to narrow down the causes and we need to be prepared to try many different methods in the search for what’s most effective.
Teaching children to identify and understand their own emotions
In order to learn how to regulate emotions, especially anger- it’s important for children to learn to differentiate between their own varying emotions and the intensity of their feelings.
Children need to learn to recognise their own anger when it first shows up, so they can implement a strategy and calm themselves before the intensity increases. It is much easier to intervene and calm down when your child is still engaged and it’s much more difficult when your child is having a full-blown meltdown.
It’s difficult for children to manage their behaviour if they don’t understand their own feelings, if they don’t understand why they’re getting upset or the consequences of being angry.
Experts encourage us to spend plenty of time teaching kids about emotions in general, reading relevant stories and talking about the scenarios and behaviours of the characters. Showing them pictures of children showing different emotions, taking photos of your kids acting out various emotions and using them for discussion. Of course, these discussions need to happen when the children are calm, not when they’re in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown.
Talk about the physical changes they might feel when they are becoming angry. They may frown, have clenched fists, tense jaw, faster breathing, feel hot...
When you’ve had these kinds of discussions your child will understand you if you say, “you are frowning and have your arms crossed, are you feeling upset or angry?” This is all part of the process for a child to learn to recognize and talk about their emotions so they can then try to lessen them.
I suggest using an "emotion thermometer" like the ones I have included for download. (uploading soon)
It can be used as an evaluation tool so that children can decide whether their calming strategy is working effectively and whether another method may work better. It also might help them decide which strategy to use. For eg, if they’re just a little frustrated they may find a quick hug is all they need, but if they’re very angry they may be better off sitting in a bean bag in a corner of the room listening to calming music through headphones. In fact, some experts recommend that on a scale of 1-10 any emotion at level 6 or higher indicates that a child should remove themselves from the immediate area of conflict.
Teach calming strategies
During periods when your child is calm spend time reading about and talking about anger and other emotions, the effects they have and how we can learn ways to prevent ourselves from becoming really angry!
There are many, many different methods children can use to calm themselves, and you need to have the willingness to try quite a number of them in order to find the shoe that fits!
Keep it short, sweet and consistent!
It’s best to teach about calming strategies for short periods, but very regularly, preferably every day. Find a time when your kids are calm and start chatting with them about how they feel when they’re angry and what they can do to cool themselves down. Since all children are different you might start with options you think might be effective, and then broaden that out as you and your child start practising together.
For eg, you might suggest that the child sits in a quiet place to read their favourite book, but if the child can’t stay still even when they’re calm it’s not going to be an effective strategy when they’re emotional. Instead, the child might say they’d like to squash a ball of play dough so you can pull out ideas that involve movement and distraction such as painting, playing in a water tray or sand tray or building with blocks.
Practice mindfulness every day.
- Ask your child to notice how they feel right now, in their body.. maybe even a few times each day! (even when they’re not anxious, feeling sad, or mad.)
- Practise a few strategies so it’s easier for them to implement them when they really need them, and besides, they are fun!
Calming strategy suggestions
Deep, Steady Breathing
This is very popular. Ask your child to pretend they are holding a birthday cake with 109374 candles! Ask them to pretend to blow it gently so that the flame flickers but doesn’t go out.
Cup your hands together and pretend to slowly blow them up like a balloon! When the imaginary balloon is big and round you can slowly let the air back out or have it pop by clapping hands together.
Another option is to blow bubbles!
(Just note that this can wind some kids up rather than calm them.)
- Racing, pretending to walk on the moon, jumping lava, and dancing! There is stretching, yoga (YouTube videos), pushing hard against a wall or lifting big objects!
A quiet space
If we make an inviting, private space some children will take themselves there when they feel overwhelmed without even being prompted. Space should be fairly small, and make use of pillows and blankets, cuddly toys, a favourite book or song to play, something to squeeze or fidget with, perhaps a calm down jar or sound-reducing earphones, some hard candy or gum to chew.
- A small space. Some children with sensory issues respond very well to being tucked into a very tiny place like a box full of pillows, where they have to fold up their body to even fit. Or they might like to be wrapped up tight in a blanket or weighed down with something heavy.
The goal of sensory play is to help a child focus on just one of her senses so that others are blocked out to give relief.
- Try a water table, sand table or sandpit, play dough, clay or finger painting. Paint how they’re feeling at an easel or pretend to write a letter about why they’re angry. Fill a box with different textures such as feathers, furs, velvet, buttons or cotton wool. Fill another box with sound makers such as a shaker, triangle, paper to crumble, a conch shell, a small tin and chopstick, or provide headphones and music.
Ask a child to imagine they’re somewhere else, for eg, their favourite holiday spot or riding their bike or flying like a bird over a beautiful mountain.
Once a child has decided which strategies they’d like to try and they’ve practised them while they’re calm, it’s time to see how they go when the emotions are high.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Not only should a child practice their preferred strategies but after they’ve calmed down it helps to have a discussion about how effective the strategy was and whether they want to hold on to that idea, adapt it or toss it and try something else. Some strategies will work better at lower levels of distress, while others will be needed for higher levels of anger. Also, there might be differences between what works best at home and what works best at school, and what works in the classroom compared to what works on the playground.
Tips for success:
Your child is learning how to function in the community and they mean no harm. They may learn something different and not act the same way, its a process, a long process.. a learning process that takes time, love, patience and practise. Sensory Processing Issues affects the way a child perceives the world around them.
- It’s a good idea to let those around you know you are working on finding calming strategies. It helps when all caregivers can be on the same page.
- Be kind to yourself. Your child is having a meltdown, this most certainly is not a reflection on your parenting.
- Be kind to your child. I know its frustrating. Can you imagine having sensory issues? It's even MORE frustrating! Your child, is just that, a child. Meltdowns are not a reflection on your child or a projection of who your child will become.
You're a fucking badass parent. Keep on, Keepin' on homie. We got you.