How to Help Your Child During a Meltdown: Providing Options for Requests

In a previous post I talked about the importance of emotional regulation for parents and children. While it is important to have a goal and a plan to implement positive emotional regulation strategies, it’s more important to acknowledge that no two situations and no two children are the same. As parents, we can only strive to do our best in each situation, but there isn’t a perfect formula for success, and it is rarely easy. However, I do have some tips based on my experience in special education, and the real-life education my two very different daughters have provided for me!

Kids have a hard time identifying, let alone managing, their feelings and emotions. Stressful and challenging times often highlight this fact. However, these times also bring valuable opportunities for both parents and children to practice their emotional regulation skills.

The Child Meltdown

Imagine the situation, maybe a couple hours ago, hopefully a couple weeks ago, when your child requested a specific meal. You listened to their request a spent time in the kitchen preparing it for them. When it was time to eat, they took the first bite and smiled at you 🙂

After that warm embrace, they looked over at their sibling’s food. While chewing the next bite of their meal, they spit out their food and screamed, “this food is disgusting!

I want what my sister has!

You never give me what she has!”

Child Temper Tantrum

The Initial Parent Response

As things turn for the worst, parents have some options as to how they will respond, including:

  1. Become louder than the child and demand compliance.
  2. Magically provide exactly what they need in the moment.
  3. Calmly remind them of reality with some emotional regulation tips.

Hopefully we all agree that the third is the most reasonable, and the best way to model appropriate behavior while teaching valuable emotional regulation skills. You have the opportunity to model those skills and provide helpful advice for your kids (after they are calm enough to listen).

It is nice to read the generic tips for perfect parenting: Just have your child practice mindfulness (as the situation explodes and they are throwing their food at this point). They will of course follow your perfect model of emotional regulation. They will immediately implement other skills like positive self-talk and problem-solving skills…. Oh yeah, back to reality.

Options for the Child

The outburst was extreme enough that the turnaround isn’t going to be immediate. Give the child options to calm themselves down before discussing their dinner options. Here is a way to phrase the options:

“I see that you are upset. If you can calmly talk with me about this, we can compromise. First, here are some options to help you calm down. You can:

  1. Take a few drinks of water.
  2. Walk up to your room for a couple minutes.
  3. Play with your toys and ask those characters what they would do in this situation.

Which one of those would you like to do?”

Providing these choices may prevent additional outbursts at the table. In this instance, the child is given the opportunity to make a choice. Any choice they make will provide opportunities for the child to calm down.

More Options for the Child

After the child is calm, they can come back to the table. This is an excellent opportunity to suggest additional choices for the child. It would be easiest if they just ate the food in front of them, but we can all agree that independence is important.

“Thank you for taking that time out and calming your body! (Insert option here) helped you to calm your body didn’t it? Are you ready to eat some dinner? Here are your choices. You can:

  1. Go ahead and eat the delicious meal you asked for and after dinner we can (insert fun activity here).
  2. Eat a few bites of your meal and then we can see if you would still like to eat something else when you are done.
  3. You can take another break and clean up the playroom while I warm up something similar to what your sister has. Once you are done cleaning up the playroom you can eat, but most of us will probably be done eating by then.

These options are opportunities for the child to reassess their decision. They are rewarded with opportunities that were likely already available, but in the stress of the moment children clearly do not see the whole picture. They might choose to be ‘rewarded’ with alternatives that come with reasonable cost. Most importantly, they are provided with an opportunity to discuss their feelings and explain how and why they are feeling a certain way. Often these conversations are most valuable after the child is able to make a choice.

Like any skill, learning to regulate one’s emotions takes practice and patience. A parent’s consistent ability to remain calm and offer choices will give our kids a sense of control in difficult situations, while also allowing time to calm down and process their emotions. While every situation may be different, providing our kids with different options can be a valuable tool in enhancing emotional regulation for both them and us as parents. With time and effort, we can see the benefits of this skill in our relationships and interactions with our children.

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