The Post-Meltdown Debrief

Your child has just spent the past 45 minutes crying and yelling at you for placing them in their room or administering some other consequence. You’re tired, hurt and doubting your ability as a parent. And now that it is quiet you have a strong urge to lay low for a while lest you inadvertently trigger a whole new meltdown from your child. So you leave your child to quietly play by themselves, and you go about tidying up the kitchen, and everyone tries to act like nothing happened.

But your work is only half done.

Generally, when a child melts down it’s a three part act. There is what we do when the child is starting to melt down, what we do when our child is melting down and lastly, what we do when our child’s melt down has passed.

Often a lot our energy as parents goes into the first two parts of dealing with a meltdown – the before and during – with not a lot going into the after. When we do this we actually slow the learning process for our child in knowing how to regulate their feelings and, in addition create an atmosphere of tension in the home that makes the perfect climate for another meltdown in the not too distant future.

The reasons why we often don’t spend as much time on the third part of the process are pretty understandable. Generally, we are tired; frustrated at both our child and ourselves; and somewhat fearful of another meltdown inadvertently being kickstarted by trying to talk to our emotionally spent child.

But we need to talk to them. It’s a critical part of them learning how to regulate their own behaviour and feelings.

Firstly, start with sticking your head in their room, or whatever part of the house they have retreated to. You will generally know within a few seconds whether or not they are ready for you. Do not be discouraged if you are met with strong “Don’t Go There” signals. Just mention that you’ll come back in a few minutes and try again then. Eventually, they will let you.

At this point you should start talking. But your conversation should not be a lecture about their poor behaviour. Generally, a child who has had time by themselves after a meltdown is aware of the fact that their behaviour was poor. Your child is likely still somewhat irritable. As such, use empathy. Acknowledge how they must be feeling, including mentioning that they seem angry at you about what just happened. If you get this right your child’s defences will start to come down, they may start unloading what they think about the whole situation or they may even start to cry.

You should then give the trigger for the whole situation some dignity. If the melt down was around handing in a device talk about how this could be done better in future – from both your child and you. If the meltdown was about a consequence handed out for rude language a discussion about what made your child so angry in the first place may be needed. You don’t have to take their side necessarily, it’s just about hearing them out and seeing if there is a mutual way to avoid the same incident in future.

Now that all of that is done you take a few moments, only the smallest of moments too, to discuss any consequences for how they behaved in the course of their meltdown. This might mean a further 24 hours off technology because they threw their phone or going to bed a little earlier for speaking rudely to mum. But don’t lecture. Just calmly and quickly give the consequence. Your child may melt down again but they are expecting some sort of consequence for their poor decisions – so give it to them.

After all of this is done the most important part of the conversation comes last. This is where we give our child reassurance of three unchanging things:

  1. I love you
  2. You are a good kid
  3. I forgive you

These three reassurances tap into some of the main recurring fears that children have post discipline. Children may feel that you do not love them for what they have done, that you think that they are a bad kid or that you cannot forgive them for their poor behaviour. Look them in the eye and tell them these reassurances and you will bring closure to the whole meltdown. Your child will know that your relationship is strong enough to hold them while they work out how to regulate their behaviours and emotions.

Hopefully then, your next meltdown won’t be quite so soon.