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'It's like watching a tornado': How to deal with toddler meltdowns

By Dr Kaylene Henderson|

I'm sure you've witnessed a screaming child in the throws of an epic meltdown.

OK, OK let's be honest. Chances are, it hasn't been A child, it's been YOUR child. Although, when it's happened in the supermarket, you might have been tempted to pretend it was someone else's child.

It's like watching an internal tornado gain intensity and wreak havoc within your little one, rendering them hysterical. Sometimes there's a build up; at other times the emotional storm seems to blow in without warning, leaving your child suddenly unresponsive to logic or reasoning.?

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We've all been there. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

I describe it like this, not just because this is how it appears, but because, clouded by our own horror, we can lose sight of what this experience must be like for our out-of-control little ones. They are swept up by a tornado-for-one C and it can be completely terrifying for them.

And just as you would never expect a child caught up in a powerful tornado to be able to 'calm themselves down', a young child with overwhelming emotions also finds it utterly impossible to do so.

The reason behind this is that the ability to calm down from intense emotional states (known formally as emotional regulation) requires the development of specific brain pathways which actually take years to establish.

It's a lot like learning to walk or talk; our children aren't born with these skills either, and will frequently need our help as they develop and learn. The same is true for their emotional regulation skills.

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Toddlers don't have the ability to regulate their emotions. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

While our children are still young, they will often need our help to calm down, since their developing brains tend to become overwhelmed by even low intensity emotions.

Of course, in an ideal world we would be able to predict and prevent meltdowns before they happen. But assuming frequent meltdowns are a normal byproduct of our children's brain development, what can we do to help when they've lost control?

Here are my top three tips for managing meltdowns:

1. Stay calm

Remind yourself that your screaming child is out of control and needs your help to deal with more than their growing brain can handle.

I liken it to watching your child fall down as they're learning to walk. Just as we wouldn't get angry with a stumbling toddler, we need to remain calm when our little ones are 'losing it' too.

Start by taking slow, deep breaths and over time, your child will learn to do the same.

2. Stay with your child

Sometimes children are sent to 'time-out' when they're upset, with the expectation that they can calm themselves down. Yet our knowledge of brain development teaches us that this is asking the impossible of our little ones.

Sure, their distress will eventually ease due to sheer exhaustion, but that's not the most efficient way to help our children. Nor is it the best way to instill confidence in them that they can turn to us when life overwhelms them.

3. Save your words until later

When they're feeling really upset, our children's brains hit 'pause' on processing language, logic or learning (the all important 'Ls'!).

This is why your words don't go in while your child is in the midst of a meltdown, nor can they see the logic in the situation or learn how they might have handled a situation differently.

Instead, help your child to calm down first and save your words and teaching for afterwards, once those necessary brain pathways are back online.

"You're really upset. I'll help you calm down. Let's slow our breathing down, cuddle in, then we'll figure the rest out together once you're feeling better."

When we stay with our children as they learn to calm down from big feeling states, we teach them that emotions, however intense, are always manageable. Just as importantly, we also teach our kids that they can rely on us to be their go-to-person when they feel like they're losing their grip.?

Yes, even in the supermarket.

Dr Kaylene Henderson is a highly trained Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, one of Australia's leading parenting experts and a grateful mother-of-three.

The advice in this article is general in nature. Please always consult a medical professional to obtain advice that is tailored to yours or child's specific condition.

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