It was about to happen again. A child reached in front of Chloe and grabbed a doll from the dollhouse. It was too close for comfort for 3 year old Chloe, and the look on her face told me that we needed to brace ourselves.
I could see from her widening eyes and trembling lip that she was about to go full force into meltdown mode.
This was no new occurrence for Chloe. Some days as her preschool teacher, I felt like we were all walking on eggshells around her. No one wanted to wake the sleeping giant.
And anything could set her off. A loud noise. A change in schedule. Seeing a food she didn't like in front of her. Even just stepping foot into school was sometimes a trigger.
This time at the dollhouse was no different. Soon, the tears started bursting, and the sobs began. What was she even upset about? Well, that was a mystery I wouldn't know for at least another 10-15 minutes.
That's how long it would be until she would be calm enough to actually talk about it.
Chloe transferred into my preschool class from a different class in our school because the Director felt my class might be more calming and soothing for her. I am a highly sensitive person myself, so I always have calming objects nearby to help when emotions get intense.
With a class full of preschoolers, I always had to find ways to keep the peace and even keep myself from getting stressed out.
When Chloe first started in my classroom, her meltdowns could last for 60 minutes. Nearly an hour of sobs and inconsolable frustration. As we worked together and started to understand one another more, the meltdowns still happened. But they lessened, both in time and intensity.
When it's a tantrum, a child will calm down when he gets what he wants or if she is rewarded for having more appropriate behavior.
But a meltdown is overwhelming. During a meltdown, a child is using the lower part of the brain -- the emotional or physical part that isn't thinking. It's just feeling and reacting.
As adults we have to help them work through their emotions to get to the higher part of their brain that is responsible for logic and thinking.
So in order to bring a child from an impulsive fight-or-flight response, we need to meet them where they are at -- on an emotional level.
5 Powerful Phrases that Help Defuse a Meltdown
When these moments strike, here are five powerful phrases that help defuse a meltdown and navigate children through the roller coaster of emotions.
Do you need a hug?
When we're feeling overwhelmed, a hug can sometimes make all the difference in the world. Not only is a scientifically proven way to boost oxytocin levels and provide a therapeutic response, but it is also a way to help bond with a child and give a sense of security during an intense moment.
For some children, a hug could actually backfire. This is why it is important to ask first and follow the child's cues.
Sometimes I feel that way too.
It's amazing how our feelings nearly melt away when we know we're not alone. That we're not the only ones who experience strong emotions. We are all human and feel sadness, anger, frustration, fear, and so many other emotions.
I can see how sad you are.
Sometimes children just need to know that they are noticed. Just like adults need it. When we're feeling strong emotions rising up, how validating to know that we're seen.
This reminds me of the moment in the movie Inside Out when Bing Bong realizes he is fading from Riley's memory. While Joy tries to cheer him up and says, "Hey, it's going to be OK. We can fix this," Bing Bong can't be distracted by her attempts to help him.
On the other hand, Sadness sits down next to him and helps him grieve. As she listens to him and validates his feelings, he starts to open up and heal.
Take a deep breath with me.
When you can see that the climax has already happened, and the child is trying to calm their own emotions, this will help. You can audibly hear this when a child is gasping for breath after an intense moment. When we take in a deep breath, the extra oxygen goes to our brain and helps calm it and re-center it.
I like to tell children to pretend like they are smelling a flower or blowing out a candle. If you have bubbles or a pinwheel around, those help as well. Or just do it with them and give them a visual of what breathing in and releasing that air looks like.
Can you tell me what you're upset about?
Even when a child's meltdown is a mystery, there are ways they can help us figure out how to help them. A child's environment can be triggering this meltdown, and sometimes we are able to make slight adjustments to make the overwhelm bearable.
There are two key times when I ask children to tell me what they are upset about. If I catch a meltdown at the very inital stage, asking a child what they are upset about can help de escalate the situation quickly. Keep using validating comments and repeat the narration that the child told you. "You are upset because Ethan took that shovel from you."
Another time to use this is right after doing deep breaths when the meltdown is winding down. It helps them process the situation to talk about it with another person. Just hear them out and only intervene if you see them getting worked up again.
Sometimes I wish I could wave a magic wand and make meltdowns disappear, but it's never that easy. I've come to realize that the more I get to know a child, the more I can help figure out their triggers and work through it with them. And there are other times that we just ride it out and talk about it afterward. Emotions are an important part of our humanity. Children with some of the strongest emotions are some of the most lovable people in the world too.