Parenting Paradox: Feeling Held Hostage by Your Child’s Meltdowns?

Published 8:29 am Tuesday, September 26, 2017


All too often parents feel at a loss when facing  their child’s meltdowns. The meltdown could result from something big such as their sibling (or mother) eating their chocolate Easter bunny or something minor such as falling off their bike at the end of the day when they’re already tired and hungry. No matter what the situation, having a plan to help your child regulate their emotions is never a bad idea.

What the Research Says

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In a study of 120 families, researchers John and Julie Gottman identified  specific parenting steps that can help facilitate healthy  emotional development which they detail in their book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting.  According to their research,  when parents help their children learn to deal effectively with negative emotions, their children develop greater self-confidence, improved school performance and healthier social relationships.

Five Parenting Steps to Emotional Coaching

Become aware of your child’s emotions –   Be in tune to changes in your child’s mood, as well as your own. When possible, be present and be aware before the meltdown begins.  If you notice your child’s  emotions rising after your child has crossed the threshold to full blown anger, these steps will be much more difficult to implement.

What this looks likes:  You pick your child up from soccer practice and notice as they enter the car that they seem irritated. Step back and ask yourself, What does my child need from me in this moment?, rather than overwhelming him with a multitude of  questions or trying to avoid the distress with excessive cheerfulness.

Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching — When your child exhibits anger or frustration, recognize that this is not a threat to your authority or ability to parent, but rather a time when your child is lacking the ability to tame his emotions. If you match their distress with your own distress, then we all know what happens, things escalate. If, on the other hand, you see their response as a gap in their current ability to communicate how they are feeling, it is easier to remain calm.

What this looks like: The automatic parent response to their child’s perceived obstinance can often be, “Oh yes you are going to practice. And no more complaining!” Instead, stop and say, “Sounds like you don’t want to go to practice. What’s going on?” Notice this statement doesn’t give your child permission to skip practice. It simply opens the door for conversation.

Listen empathetically and validate your  child’s feelings —Simply put, let your child say their peace without interrupting them or minimizing their concern . This doesn’t mean you always agree with your child, rather you show  you heard what they said and understand they are struggling. You can  set limits on how long you listen if your child keeps rehashing the same issue, but preferably wrap things up after you’ve let your child verbalize their distress once.

  What this looks like:  Your child comes home from a play date angry with their friend … again. You may be tempted to say, “ You need to just get over this.”  Instead, listen then paraphrase and validate: “Sounds like you felt John cheated at kickball, and it made you mad.”

Help your child find words to label the emotions they experience – This is best achieved when the parent asks the child to verbalize what they feel rather than rushing into  solving the problem for them or dismissing their feelings all together. If your child can’t verbalize their feelings, offer 3 feelings you think they might be experiencing and ask them to pick.

What this looks like:  When your child screams again, “I can’t stand my sister, she’s such a baby.”  Stop and ask, ”What are you feeling right now?” If she responds with restating her complaining, prompt her again to state a feeling. And then listen without interjecting and see if her emotions diffuse.

• Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand – Even when parents take time to listen, validate, and provide needed empathy, you can still set limits; however, when appropriate, parents should encourage their child to offer opinions about the potential problem and generate a plan and other alternatives.

What this looks like:  Your child asks to have a birthday party sleepover with 12 kids. You’ve been around the block and know where this could go. Before saying “NO,” ask your child “So, what do you think the top 3 fun things would be and the top 3 stressors that could occur if  12 kids sleepover.” Using these unbiased questions, see if your child can generate potential issues and then make a more informed decision.

Katherine L. Stone, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who has practiced in Lexington for almost 20 years, focusing on issues mental health issues that affect today’s youth and young adults.

Laura Bonzo-Sims, Ed.D. has been an educator for 25 years, serving as a college advisor, middle and high school English teacher, and graduate school professor.