Humans are social-emotional beings. We have a vibrant array of feelings that come in all sizes. Our instincts tie in closely with our emotions and both are rooted into our development. When we ignore our instincts, there is an unsettling feeling. When we ignore our emotions, anxiety often builds. Trusting these integral parts of our nature and going with their flow allows us to focus and solve problems in a solid and reliable manner.
When your child is crying, you probably feel this burning sensation to make it stop. Just end it. Doesn't matter how. Just. Make. It. Stop. But have you ever thought about why you want it to stop? Why are these big emotions, that are critical to your child's life, so difficult for you to process? Reflect on that.
For your child, crying is not the problem. Crying is a form of expression. Crying is a tool for communication. And, usually a very successful one at getting everyone to listen quickly. The problem is, many of us adults, struggle with how to accept crying (myself included). Your child will cry. Your child will sometimes cry loudly. The more you fight against the crying; the worse it will likely get. Crying can often be healing if you are able to share the moment with someone who listens, validates and lets you pass through it.
Temper Tantrum versus Full Dysregulated Meltdown
We often use the terms "temper tantrum" and "full meltdown" interchangeably, however they are distinctly different. During a temper tantrum, a child will still talk and probably even try to reason or argue with you. Engaging in a back and forth argument with your tantrumming child is futile. Stand your ground, hold your boundary and follow through promptly in any consequence you present. Try to keep your words minimal and soft. I find a nod and spoken "Yea, it's tough," can go a long way in getting us both through what's happening. Sometimes your physical presence may help, sometimes it may not. Leaving a child to tantrum alone though can trigger feelings of abandonment and takes away the opportunity to "share your calm". When I feel leaving the room is needed, I always make sure the child knows I'm nearby and waiting for them to be "ready".
During a meltdown, however, a child loses their ability to talk entirely. You won't hear the arguing or the debating. This needs your intervention, most likely through physical touch such as a hug or deep pressure on their arms and legs, if you are able to safely do so. Dimming the lights and turning down any noise may also help create a calming space.
You will notice, your child's big emotions happen in waves. They go up and down, up and down. If you're going to resort to a distraction technique, time it during the down swing of a tantrum. If you gave your child space, wait for them to come to you.
Making Space for Big Feelings
Adults hate big feelings. They signal a person who is unstable and immature. They tell us that someone is not ready for whatever we are trying to achieve. Well, children are just that: immature, unstable and not ready for many of the demands we expect. It is on us to model remaining calm ("sharing our calm") and not get swept up in big feelings. Then, when we do get swept up, it's up to us to model how to de-escalate and allow these feelings to pass. What coping skills do you use to get through when you are mad? What about sad? Or frustrated? How can you demonstrate this for your child? If you don't have coping skills, what to do you think you could try? Our human existence is full of emotions and it is unfair to hide them from our children. Being honest and real allows our children to see how it's done.
Impacts on Development
Being able to feel a big emotion and allow it to pass is critical for our executive functioning. These are skills that develop later on in our lives and include things such as impulse control, planning, attention shifting, and time management. A child who did not learn to process their big emotions may demonstrate weaknesses in these areas when they are older as they act quickly on impulse, instead of holding on and thinking through their actions. They may overreact or react in ways that cause more harm when they run into a challenge. They may lose track of time and have difficulty prioritizing tasks.
What Can You Do?
The biggest thing you can do is make sure you have a handle on your own emotions first. Do the work to accept how emotions flow through your life. Think about your coping skills and how you can be real with your child in how you feel. Maybe this will look like turning on some calming music when you feel yourself getting upset; or sitting in a quiet place when you need a break (putting yourself in a "time in"?), or make a cup of tea and even invite your child to share. Discuss feelings, in a developmentally appropriate manner, when they come up and acknowledge how they always go away. When you are able to handle your emotions, you will be better able to help someone else handle theirs. And remember, that's what you're doing; you are not handling your child's emotions. You are helping them handle their own emotions. Separate the two so you don't take them on. Your child's feelings are not your responsibility; providing the roadmap for how to pass the time is. And remember, the feelings will pass. Even if you don't do anything, it will pass. You do not need to "fix" the crying. Let your child own their feelings and let them go.
A Last Word on Meltdowns...
Some of our children will go straight into meltdowns where they lose all cognitive control. These times are tough and require extra patience. Many times meltdowns are used to communicate a sensory dysregulation too, especially in our autistic children or those with sensory differences. If your child has a sensory need, you MUST give in to that need. Your child will not be able to get out of the meltdown without meeting that sensory need first. It doesn't matter if they are hungry, tired, the lights are too bright, noises too loud, tag too itchy, the school bus too yellow... If it's causing a meltdown, you must tend to it immediately and with compassion. Forcing your child to endure sensory dysregulation will not help them "get over it".
Also, of course, I understand there may be times you cannot simply remove/change the trigger, and I know you are always doing the best you can to support their needs from a place of love. If you cannot remove/change the cause of a sensory meltdown, you need to keep your patience firm and demonstrate extra empathy until things are handled.