As a highly anxious and sensitive child, I felt fearful most of the time. I didn’t like loud noises, new situations, crowds, going fast, or unpredictable people. Yes, you could say that I was super chill and well-adjusted. I was constantly teased about being a “scaredy-cat” which did not help my confidence to grow. And although I had many things in my life that felt quite scary, there was one that trumped them all.
I was a small child throughout most of the 80s which meant I watched a lot of vintage Disney cartoons. There is one monstrous villain who shows up in many of these films - a drooling, growling, ravenous wolf. Being the unique child that I was (ahem), I naturally developed a phobia of cartoon-style wolves. I was so terrified of the wolf from “Peter and the Wolf” and “Lambert the Sheepish Lion” that their theme music would make me instantly melt down into terror. If you were to play those songs for me today, I would likely get an instant stomach ache.
“Wolf” from Peter and the Wolf (1946) and Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1952)
You are probably wondering why I am sharing this little anecdote from my childhood trauma with you. Well, I want to use this example as an illustration of why we cannot reason with children when they are scared or melting down.
One of the weirdest things about my childhood phobia was that I wasn’t nearly as afraid of real wolves as I was of the cartoon wolf in those Disney movies. The cartoon wolf was the one that lived in my imagination. The cartoon wolf was the one that I thought was howling at the moon. The cartoon wolf lived in the hallway between my bedroom and the bathroom when I had to get up in the night to go potty. He was also the one that chased me into my parents’ bedroom where I then crawled up between them to safety.
I was absolutely afraid of something that didn’t actually exist. And I can tell you that all the adults in my life tried their best to reason with me about this fact. They told me there were no wolves in Kansas. They explained that wolves are more afraid of humans than the other way around. They even tried to desensitize me by “howling” regularly to see if I was still scared (fyi don’t do this). But it didn’t matter because I was not capable of reasoning my fear out - every time I heard that song or someone did a pretend howl, my Fight, Flight, or Freeze response was activated.
You have probably heard of “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” but you may not know the science behind it. It's an amazing survival process that gets activated in our brains when we perceive a threat or danger. Our ancestors used this brain process to stay alive in the face of predators, accidents, or situations of violence. In the modern world, we might sense this activation when we hit a patch of ice in our cars, get yelled at by a boss or coworker, or receive the wrong coffee order. Some of these situations are truly dangerous, while others point to areas for growth (ahem). However, we don’t get to choose what sets this system off - our amygdala and hypothalamus work together to put us on high alert as a protective instinct.
No matter what a person’s age might be, when their Fight, Flight, or Freeze response is activated they temporarily lose the ability to reason. A mature adult with a mostly developed prefrontal cortex might be able to pause their rage or panic for just long enough to choose a different response than melting down. For instance, we can choose to be patient instead of flying into road rage when someone cuts in front of us on an off-ramp.
Children simply do not have the physical ability or emotional maturity to “pause” their Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. That’s why kids seem unreasonable: because they literally cannot be reasoned with. In fact, our prefrontal cortex does not finish development until our mid-to-late 20s! So, bad news, if your teenager is melting down, you probably can’t reason with them either.
As parents in the modern age, we (hopefully) know that punishing a child for having a temper tantrum or meltdown is both ineffective and also emotionally neglectful. Many of us experienced first-hand how getting spanked for crying or being put in time-out for losing our temper just made us feel alone and afraid. As a Play-Based Interventionist that mainly sees younger kids, I’ve talked to many parents struggling to figure out why their kids are still freaking out even though they are trying to be reasonable and understanding. Why won’t these kids just calm down and be thankful I’m not repeating the mistakes of past generations?
Well, that’s because instead of words, what your child needs is for you to lend them your nervous system. The solution to meltdowns, temper tantrums, and unreasonable outbursts is Co-Regulation. Co-Regulation is defined by Rosanbalm and Murray as, “The supportive process between caring adults and children, youth or young adults that fosters self-regulation development” (2017).
So, how does one lend out their nervous system? This is probably both harder and simpler than you think. The first rule of co-regulation is that the adult or caregiver must be regulated themselves to help the child in need of regulation. In other words, you have to be calm before you can help your child to feel calm.
Being regulated is not always easy, especially when our child has activated our own Fight, Flight, or Freeze response with their meltdown. This is especially true if you experienced any type of neglect or abuse as a child. The first step toward self-regulation is self-compassion. Acknowledge that you might be having a hard time and take a moment to give yourself understanding. It's okay if you need to give yourself a quick time-out to breathe and gather your wits. You might also find it helpful to check in with a co-parent or friend and tell them you are in need of support and understanding.
When you feel calm, enter into the space where your child is having a meltdown. Consider that they are not GIVING you a hard time but that they are HAVING a hard time. They are every bit as miserable as you - probably even more so. Their feelings are real and need to be validated. Approach them with warmth and nurturance. You could sit down near them or ask if they want to be held. All you need to do is focus on your breathing and keep your energy or mood as calm, safe, and relaxed as possible. It might help to think of all the love and comfort you wish to give your child. Your attitude and actions will follow your thoughts and I promise your child will know if you are feeling resentful and impatient without you even saying a word.
Next, model self-soothing and self-regulation for your child. Children are like little mirrors that reflect our energy and mood. Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling happy, relaxed, and calm during a trip to Target your kids seem to behave much better than when you feel stressed, impatient, and in a hurry? Well, that’s because our brains have something called mirror neurons - we are wired to mimic behavior that we see around us. As a parent or caregiver, you can use this to your advantage. When you are calm and in a peaceful state, your child will likely begin to behave and feel as you do.
Once you notice that your child is beginning to relax, it's time for connection. Connection can look like lots of different things. Keep in mind that this is not the time to try to reason with, lecture, or even have a conversation with your child. Your child needs to feel validated, comforted, and safe. Naming their feelings and telling them it's okay is all that needs to be said. For example, “Oh my goodness, you’re so disappointed that we can’t stay at the park longer. It’s so hard to leave when we are having so much fun. I’m sorry that we have to go. I wonder if a hug would help?”
A soothing touch is a great way to connect without words. Specifically, if you use your fingertips to lightly tickle your child’s back, arms, or head, it will activate the c-tactile fibers which are special nerves in the parts of our skin that contain hair. If you gently caress or tickle your child in this way it will activate the reward center in their brain and help them to feel loved, connected, and safe. An interesting fact: All mammals have these neurons and instinctively use them to soothe each other- think of it as the human equivalent of a mama cat or dog licking her babies. (Doucleff, Michaeleen. 2023).
Once your child begins to calm down, you can start to ask yourself what, if any, needs are not being met. Is your child tired, hungry, overstimulated, or hurt? Has something happened lately to disrupt their routine or make them feel unsafe? As a way to redirect the situation, you could offer what’s missing (if possible). For example, “Wow, I notice that you are so sad right now and I want to help you feel safe and happy. I am also remembering that it's been a while since we had anything to eat. I wonder if you are feeling hungry and thirsty too? Maybe we could go home and have a snack and a drink and some quiet time together. Wouldn’t it be so nice to snuggle on the couch together? Does that sound like a good idea? I wonder what kind of snack sounds good?”
More often than not, you will be able to move forward with your day at this point. Eventually, you might be able to avoid most meltdowns altogether because you will be feeling much more in tune with your child (and yourself as a bonus!). You will learn to anticipate the meltdowns before they hit and use your powers of co-regulation and connection to soothe your child before they even know they are going to be upset.
The most important thing to remember is that co-regulation is a skill. And just like any skill, you can only get better with practice. I think one of the greatest benefits of taking this approach as a parent or caregiver is that it will also improve your relationship with yourself. I hope you will begin to also see yourself as someone worthy of compassion, understanding, and love. When you hold space for your child, I hope you will remember to hold space for yourself. As you connect with your child, I hope that you can connect with your inner child and tell them how much you love them and see them and that they are precious too. This work is sacred because it helps us to heal and grow and create a new future for our families. May your New Year begin with hope, connection, and love, and may that continue all the year through.
If this is a topic you would like to learn more about, here is some recommended reading:
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph. D.
No-Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph. D.