How to Deal With Meltdowns
Emotional Flooding and the Brain
What parent hasn’t been confronted with a meltdown? We all have. It’s a regular event, and just part of the behavioral terrain if you have kids. The bigger question is how to handle them most effectively. There are some strategies that can help, but before getting to those, it’s a good idea to get a grasp on what’s actually happening during a meltdown.
The more clinical name for a meltdown is “emotional flooding.” It’s a good term because it really does describe what happens to someone when they are having a meltdown. Literally they become flooded with emotions that are overwhelming, and preempt thinking. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being so consumed with an emotional reaction that you say “I just can’t think right now.” This is actually a very true statement. Understanding a little about how the brain processes emotional stimuli will clarify how this works.
There are two parts of the brain that deal with incoming stimuli, the neocortex and the amygdala. Some people refer to it actually as having “two brains”, and there is some truth in that. As visual, auditory or any other sensory stimuli hits the brain, a signal is sent to thalamus where it is translated in language the brain can use, and then is sent on to the neocortex for analysis prior to response. If the content of the signal is emotional in nature, it is also sent to the amygdala, which is the emotional processing center in the brain. The neocortex analyzes the information, including the emotional signals sent from the amygdala, and creates an appropriate response.
The neocortex represents the executive function of the brain. If you have ever watched Star Trek, then the neocortex is represented by Captain Kirk. He asks for the feedback from Spock (the factual center), and Bones (the emotional center), and he then makes a decision based on his evaluation of that information, along with his own intuition.
That all works fine unless the incoming signal is highly emotional and signals stress, fear, or even extreme joy. In these cases, there is a back pathway that leads directly to the amygdala from the thalamus. The speed of delivery from the thalamus to the amygdala is faster than that from the thalamus to the neocortex. So when a signal of distress or alarm is sent out, the amygdala springs into action and responds without benefit of the analysis performed by the neocortex, and even before the neocortex knows what’s happening. It’s more of a knee-jerk reaction that is fully emotional in nature, and based on pieces of information that may be inaccurate.
Here’s why. The amygdala forms in infants long before the neocortex is developed. It begins to log in subconscious impressions and reactions prior to language. Emotionally charged impressions are all on the subconscious hard drive, and can be pulled up at any moment when the system is under stress. The amygdala may create a reaction that is over the top, and isn’t wholly related to the current situation or perceived threat. It uses impressions that seem similar or somewhat related that have been stored in the subconscious, and responds to them without analysis. These impressions may be fragments of information that are outdated. They are often preverbal or early triggers that operate out of our awareness. They may also be information logged in from post-verbal stressful events that have some similarity to the present situation, but not exactly. That makes the response to the current situation very exaggerated and inflated.
In short, emotional flooding is the result of the amygdala sounding a red alert based on information that may be faulty. Sometimes that can be helpful if there is an immediate threat that requires action such as grizzly bear descending upon you. But for the most part, it’s like an inflammatory reaction based on fear or stress, without the benefit of first checking to see if the situation really warrants that. Think lighter fluid and a match.
Once someone is emotionally flooded, they really can’t be rational. They need time to come down from the intensity of the reaction and gain some calm and composure. There is absolutely no point in trying to talk through a problem with someone that is emotionally flooded, nor is it helpful to blame or criticize them for the reaction. You have to turn your attention to how to help the flame go down and get the brain back into some kind of balance.
What Kinds of Things Cause Emotional Flooding
For children, there are a number of possibilities including individual temperament, developmental stages, factors related to parent behavior, or simple logistical factors such as being tired or hungry.
Some kids are more reactive by nature, meaning they come out of the womb that way. If you have more than one child, you’ve seen the differences in temperament between the two. These are the personal traits and characteristics that are present prior to socialization. Reactivity and the ability to deal with stress is one of these. Some kids are more emotional by nature, some are very sensitive and easily overwhelmed, and some more challenging or oppositional from the get go. These kids tend more towards emotional flooding.
There are specific developmental stages that produce feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and sensitivity to authority. Toddlers and adolescents definitely fall into this category. The whole process of separating and individuating from parents produces natural anxiety during these stages and leave kids oscillating between feeling overly powerful (narcissistic) and very helpless (dependent). It’s like having very dry kindling wood too close to the sun. In the case of toddlers, cognition has not developed significantly enough to be able to use language to help manage and regulate emotions. Adolescents have developed cognition, and can use language to help regulate emotions, but they too are experiencing vacillating emotional states that overwhelm them.
Children imitate and internalize the habits of their parents. It’s one of the reasons parenting is sometimes challenging. Kids are like psychological and emotional mirrors. If you have meltdowns very often yourself, or if you are prone to high levels of reactivity, you are likely to see that behavior coming right back at you. You’ll either see imitation of it or you’ll see a child that becomes quieter and more compliant. I’m not talking about the occasional meltdown here. It’s near impossible not to have those sometimes. It’s the more chronic pattern that is problematic. It may be that you have problems with emotional flooding yourself, and may not have learned how to deal with them effectively. If that’s the case, don’t be hard on yourself, but seek some help in learning how to deal with your negative and reactive emotions. Then you will be better able to help your child regulate his emotions.
Kids that are hungry, tired, over stimulated or any combination of these are more prone to meltdowns. If you have a child that is particularly sensitive to stimuli, you are more likely to see meltdowns under these kinds of circumstances. You can plan ahead to avoid activity at these times.
How to Handle a Meltdown
Step 1 – Accept what it is.
Based on how the brain works to handle stress, you now have a grasp on what happens during a meltdown. It isn’t an attempt to manipulate, but rather a real experience engineered by the brain’s red alert system that takes over for some length of time. The first step is really understanding and accepting it for what it is.
Step 2 – Diffuse.
This is the most important step and can take the longest depending on the situation and on the child. The task is to diffuse the situation. This means not leaving your child alone, but not trying to take away the feeling either. If you have a teen, you can give him some distance until he is ready to talk, although some teens want to be comforted directly. With a younger child, you wait and listen for a shift in the intensity and then step in to help soothe. Sometimes you can directly ask if she needs help to calm down. I’ve seen this work well with younger children. You say something along the lines of, “I see you are really upset. Do you need some help to feel better?” If she is not ready, she will let you know, but if she is, you will get a nod yes at which point you can make some moves to soothe such as getting a tissue, or offering to let her sit in your lap, or whatever you know usually helps.
When a child is out of control emotionally, he needs your help to get his equilibrium back. You can’t problem solve until this has been accomplished, so you should dispense with talking or taking action to move along. This is true even if the meltdown has occurred as a result of some disciplinary action.
It is also not helpful to “get the anger out” as has been popular in the past. Hitting a punching bag, screaming, or increasing the intensity is the wrong thing to do. It only makes the situation worse and doesn’t help a child learn to self-soothe. This is a good lesson for adults too.
Step 3 – Problem solve.
When the emotional intensity is back to normal, you can go about working on fixing the problem if there is one to be fixed. If your child had a tantrum and threw things, then help her pick them up. If there was something she wanted but couldn’t have right now, you can make plans for when she can have it. If you have an older child, she may now be ready to tell you what upset her so much. In this case you should encourage her to talk, and reflect back to her what you hear. It is more important that she feels understood than for you to correct her thinking. Let her play out the scenario or problem, and show you understand her point of view. When you have accomplished this, and only when you have accomplished this, you can start helping her to come up with a solution.
Things to Keep in Mind
Figure out triggers.
If you have repetitive situations that result in meltdowns, try to figure out what the trigger is. Sometimes an out of control reaction is in response to something that isn’t so apparent in the current situation. A child who has been bullied repeatedly may be very sensitive to even the slightest hint of criticism or correction. I saw a young lady who became enraged at her brother when she felt he was playing unfairly. Her history revealed a very explosive father who often yelled at her and accused her unfairly for things she didn’t do, or harshly criticized her for things she couldn’t accomplish given her developmental age. She described her reaction as something that “just takes hold of me.” Sometimes triggers are more obvious such as reactions to change or routine.
The goal is always to help your child move from acting out intense emotions to labeling and describing them verbally. Words help to diffuse and give a child some tools to begin working with and regulating emotions, as well as gain some distance from the intensity of the feeling. The better able children are to describe in detail their emotional state or reactions, the better they can regulate them.
Don't suppress negative feelings.
It is never wise to suppress negative emotions. That means don’t try to take them away. No one can help the feelings they have. They can only learn how to best respond to and manage them. Getting rid of them prematurely just sends them underground where they can gain intensity and erupt later during an unrelated event.
Use creativity that fits your child’s developmental age to come up with solutions. You can set up signals a child can use to let you know they are about to have a meltdown. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but it can give older children a tool to put some space in between the reaction and their response. In the case of the young lady I mentioned above, she came up with the word “red hot” to use when she felt herself getting ready to spin out of control. She would yell “red hot, red hot, red hot.” Her brother knew this was the signal to back off, and her mother knew this was the signal to intervene. It worked for her by giving her that few seconds before the emotions took over, and also gave her mom a heads up to take action.
Are Meltdowns Ever Manipulative?
There is a difference between a real meltdown and a drama-driven display that is created to get something. Even so, the response is the same. If you have a child that you really feel uses meltdowns strategically to get a particular response, then you would still back off until the intensity dies down, and then offer to help. You would not, however, give into the unreasonable demand. If a child is using meltdowns manipulatively, and they are not successful in getting the results they are after, they will eventually stop. You never want to give into unreasonable demands, or placate a child with rewards for out of control behavior. The goal is always to help children learn to self soothe and problem solve.
Suggested Reading: Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.