Managing Meltdowns

I’m going to give you my three top tips on managing meltdowns. 

The very first one is when there is a meltdown on the horizon. I know these things can move like a tsunami, they can move fast and they can accelerate rather quickly – particularly if a child is also anxious. If the meltdown is in full force, then one of the most important things for you to do is make sure that your tone of voice is not too far off from where they are using their tone of voice in the meltdown.

You’re gradually going to make your voice lower, lower and slower so you’ve got to do some sort of matching with your pitch in your tone then gradually, reduce it. This is called pacing and leading and is an NLP strategy. This means that you do what they do and you do what they do a bit more and you do it a bit more! Then gradually you begin to shift and change. You’ve hooked them in by having rapport with them then they will follow you but if you are mismatching (which is when they’re in one place and you’re in another) you’re never going to be able to lead them to where it is you want to get them. They’ll be too hyped up they’re just not going to be able to tune into it and hear it. The more anxious they are, the less they will hear.

The next point is about you managing your emotional state even though you may have to elevate your tone of voice so that you’re able to match them in what they’re doing it’s really important that you are doing that as part of a performance and that you don’t stop believing that state that you are mimicking. Don’t get into it too much, you know, you’ve got to think about yourself as being an actor or an actress at this particular time. You’ve got to play the role of being “I’ve hyped up with you and I’m going to gradually bring you back down again.” Rather than getting yourself hyped up with them and then you start to feel that hype feeling too and then you’re both up there and now we’ve got ourselves in a right old sorry mess!

In maintaining that hand on the gear stick, what you need to do is to make sure that you bring yourself and them down as quickly and swiftly as they can follow. Remember that this is a performance that you are delivering. Your job here is to get them to calm down. It’s not to get tangled up in the content or the detail of the complaint that they have or the bad things that they’re saying to you. You’ve got to disconnect from the emotional content that they may be throwing in your direction which sometimes, you know, kids can be a bit vicious. Sometimes they can be unkind. Don’t let yourself get hooked into that drama that they’re creating because otherwise, you’ll become part of the system and then it’s much more difficult to pull you both back out of it. A good child therapist will be able to tell you more about this and help you role-play ways to react more favourably in future.

The next thing that I would like you to remember (but also to utilise when you speak to them on the other side of the meltdown) is we are going to refer to this meltdown as that young person being in a place of pain at that time that they were having the meltdown. 

We don’t want to fall into the trap of either blaming them for bad things that they might have said or done or broken during that meltdown. We don’t want to get into the whole “You’ve got an anger management problem” or “You’ve got issues with keeping your temper” because all that does is make them feel bad about it. It makes them feel guilty about it then they get frustrated with themselves and they’re more inclined to have another meltdown.

What we want to do is have conversations – particularly on the other side of this – around the fact that “I know that you’re not happy when that happens, I know that you are feeling like you’re in some kind of pain and it’s not a pain like a hurt body it’s a pain like it’s hurting in your feelings because people only behave that way if they’re in some kind of a pain.” 

Then you can start a conversation around what that feels like, what it looks like, if you could poke it what kind of texture would it be (this is an NLP submodality exercise). You can do this even with very young children who don’t know words like ‘frustrated’ or ‘misunderstood’. We can start to get them to give you the ingredients of what that emotion felt like for them and that can help them then to communicate when that feeling is perhaps in its onset: “Mummy, I’ve got that blue wishy-washy feeling coming back in my belly”.

We want to get them to a place of feeling that in the future before the meltdown happens because these meltdowns are perhaps happening because of an inability to communicate an emotion. It might be something like “that’s not fair” it might be something like “you’ve overstepped a boundary with me” but they haven’t got the words to be able to express it in that particular moment. 

If we can get them associated with this as “I know that you are in a place of pain right now” then we’re taking the blame away from the equation.


By Gemma Bailey

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