When time-out doesn’t work: Managing your child’s meltdowns

Meltdowns and tantrums are as exhausting for children as they are for parents. Sometimes, it can be hard to understand why your child is so upset, and for kids who go from zero to 100 in a nanosecond, predicting or preventing a tantrum can seem as impossible as picking the winning Lotto numbers.

Psychologists say that there’s a reason that time out and the naughty corner don’t work for many kids. Try these practical ideas from Kids First’s psychology team next time your child loses their cool.

How to help your child manage ‘big feelings’

When your child is unable to regulate their emotions, it is a sign that they not coping with a ‘big’ emotion, such as disappointment, excitement, fear, sadness, jealousy, worry, anger, and embarrassment.

This frustration is often expressed as rage – kicking, hitting, screaming, shouting, and crying. When your child is raging, they have entered a physiological state of ‘fight or flight’.

Fight or flight is an automatic reaction to an event that we perceive as stressful or frightening. It triggers an acute hormonal stress response that prepares our bodies to fight. Grown-ups experience this response to difficult situations too, but children usually don’t have the vocabulary to talk about how they are feeling.

Instead, they communicate their feelings in other ways…and as we always say, ‘behaviour is communication’.

Signs that your child is in ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode

Understanding what fight or flight looks like for your child is the key to determining how to respond.

For your child, fightmight look like this:

  • kicking
  • screaming
  • spitting
  • pushing
  • throwing anything they can get their hands on
  • hands clasped in fists, ready to punch
  • glaring
  • clawing at the air
  • gasping for breath

Flight might present as:

  • excessive fidgeting
  • darting eyes
  • running away without any awareness of safety
  • doing anything to get away, such as kicking at a door, punching a window or climbing a gate
Child in time out

Why time out may not work

There’s a reason that children who are this upset rarely respond well to time-out.

Leaving your son or daughter in this escalated state in “time-out” can be very distressing for a child who doesn’t know what to do with big emotions when left alone.

Your child’s ‘cup’ is ‘full’ and adopting positive parenting strategies in a moment like this will probably be as successful as trying to teach a drowning child how to swim.

When your child is having a meltdown, you will need to try a different approach to help them to calm down.

The 3 Rs: ‘Regulate’ and ‘Relate’ before you try to ‘Reason’ with your child

  • First, check if your child is physically safe, and address any safety precautions as needed. (Obviously, if your child is running toward a road, preventing an accident takes priority)

  • Help yourself to regulate. To help your child to calm down, you need to take a breath and centre yourself too.

  • Using a neutral, low tone of voice say: “I’m going to sit here until you’re feeling calm”

  • Sit down, make yourself small, relax your body, and take some slow deep breaths.

  • It’s best to avoid eye contact with your child at this time. Your presence by their side is all they need in this moment.

  • Acknowledge your child’s distress. Say “oh dear”, “this is so hard”, or “this is really tough”.

  • Use as few words as possible. They last thing your child needs is more information to process right now.

  • If your child hits or kicks you, step back and say “I can’t let you hurt yourself. I can’t let you hurt me”.

Relate and Reinforce your Child’s Skill

  • When your child feels calmer, acknowledge how they were able to get back into balance.

  • Say: “I can see you had a really big feeling”, or “you were so annoyed, but you are much calmer now”.

  • Ask if they would like a hug or a glass of water to signal an end to the incident.

  • After your child has completely calmed down, and ONLY then, is the time to reflect on strategies that you could do to together next time when faced with similar challenges.

  • A big meltdown may mean that it is some time before you or your child has the capacity to think about what happened.

  • Be patient. Nothing is gained from pushing your child into a conversation that they are not ready to have.

When the meltdown is over

Tantrums and meltdowns take their toll on children and adults alike. When the temperature has lowered and your child is able to think and speak again, it’s worth having a gentle conversation about what happened.

Ask as if you were a really curious bystander: “What could we do differently when this happens?”

If your child doesn’t know, suggest “how about this or that…”.

For example, ‘Perhaps we could practice taking turns with your brother?’

Building frustration tolerance takes a lot of patience and practice.

It might take 20 or 40 times before these techniques will improve your child’s self-control. However, once this skill is mastered, your child will have developed one of the most important and valuable skills they can learn in life … Resilience and the ability to problem-solve their way through big feelings.

Does your family need help to manage your child’s meltdowns?

Kids First’s experienced team of psychologists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and Early Interventon Specialists has guided thousands of parents and children to better behaviour.

Based in Sydney’s northern beaches, we are here to help. Contact us by phone on (02) 9939 5419 to make an appointment

Psychology and Counselling for families and children at Kids First Brookvale

We’re here to support you and your child - no matter what.

Chat to us today