Oh, the dreaded meltdown. Don’t we love those screaming fits where a child has become so involved in crying he doesn't even realize what the problem is. These are the kinds of crying fits where even if you give in - the crying won't stop. The world is just too much and too unfair.
Why does this happen? Children are in the process of developing self-regulation. In this case self-regulation is the ability to get control of strong emotions. For young children they are learning to prevent an emotional nuclear meltdown.
Some emotional meltdowns are way out of proportion to the event. Once they take hold a child has great difficulty in calming down. The meltdown seems to take on a life of its own.
One trick to help a child calm down is to move the experience to a different part of the brain. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson explain this process with the terms “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain.” The upstairs brain is the problem-solving part of the brain. The downstairs brain is the survival skills part of the brain that can get us caught in a fight or flight response. When children are tired, frustrated, or in the middle of any kind of growth spurt that temporarily turns their brains upside down, they can fall victim to getting stuck in their downstairs brain, resulting in a fit that won’t quit.
The more you try to comfort them, or ask them to explain, or threaten them, distract them, or even ignore them, the longer the fit will continue. In order to calm them down you have to move them to the upstairs brain. The upstairs brain is happiest when it is solving a problem. In fact, solving a problem can take precedence over an emotional reaction.
The solution is to find an intriguing task that is not too hard, but not too easy. Once the child is engaged in the task the brain shifts to problem solving and the fit is forgotten. When your child is calm you can discuss the previous episode and problem solve how to prevent it.
Check out these ideas to help you design the right task for your child. This can work for older children, too. You just need to find the game that has the right amount of challenge and irresistibility.