Most of us have seen a screaming child who has felt completely out of control. Some of us have witnessed this in our own child, while others have spectated from the side-lines as an unknown child has had a ‘meltdown’ in the grocery store. (Worse still of course is when it IS our screaming child melting down in the grocery store). It’s like watching an internal tornado gain intensity and wreak havoc within the child rendering them hysterical. Sometimes there’s a build up, at other times the emotional storm seems to blow in without warning, leaving the young child suddenly unresponsive to logic or reasoning. I describe it like this, not just because this is how it appears, but because it’s useful to imagine what it would feel like to be affected by a mini-tornado-for-one – completely terrifying. And just as we would never expect a child caught up in a powerful tornado to be able to ‘calm themselves down’, a young child with overwhelming emotions finds it distressingly impossible too.

The reason for this is that the ability to calm down from strong emotional states (clinically known as ‘emotional regulation’) requires the development of specific brain pathways which take years to establish.

We know that when a child learns to talk, they first utter sounds before full words and later sentences. Similarly, the capacity for emotional regulation develops in stages too:

1. Initially the parent needs to calm their baby’s distress for them by doing things like holding them close, patting, rocking etc.

2. Later feelings can be managed with the help of the parent (this is known as ‘co-regulation’ of emotions)

3. Finally the child can manage their feelings on their own (this is called self-regulation of emotions)

In reality, even as adults we might move between these last two stages depending on how well we’re coping at the time and how stressful the trigger is. This means that most of the time we can calm ourselves down but at other times we still need the help of close adults to help comfort and contain our distress.

So what do we do when our young one has a meltdown? Of course, in an ideal world we predict and prevent meltdowns before they happen. Once your child’s feelings overwhelm them however, these are the steps which can best help your child:

1. Take a deep, calming breath. Remind yourself that your screaming child is out of control and needs your help to deal with more than their brain is wired to handle.

2. Stay with your child. Sometimes parents send their young child to ‘time-out’ with the instruction to calm themselves down. Not only is this a neurologically impossible task but this rejection often makes the child feel more upset so their distress lasts longer. Your child needs lots of help ‘co-regulating’ their emotions before they can learn to manage their feelings on their own. This is called ‘time-in’ rather than ‘time-out’.

3. Save talking until later. Your child cannot concentrate on your words while they remain upset so keep talking to a minimum. Simply say in a calm reassuring tone, “You’re really upset. I’ll help you calm down. Lets slow our breathing down, cuddle in, you’ll feel better soon”.

4. Breathe with your child. Show them how to take slow deep breaths. If they try to shout or scream about their plight, simply reassure them that you’ll listen to what they have to say but first you’re going to help them calm down.

5. Debrief. Once your child is calm it’s useful to have a quick chat about what just happened. You can start the conversation by saying “Gee, you must have felt really angry then. You did well calming down but I wonder what we could have done instead so that you didn’t have to feel so upset”. Listen to your child but be firm with your limits. “I understand that you felt angry because your sister grabbed the toy you were playing with, but what might be a better way to ask for your toy back next time?” Children need to learn how to manage tricky situations but they can only do this once they’re feeling calm.

When we stay with our child and help to co-regulate their strong feelings we teach them that emotions, however big, are manageable. Perhaps more importantly, we teach our child that they can rely on us to support them when they feel like they’re losing their grip.

Even in the grocery store.

About The Author

Dr Kaylene HendersonMBBS FRANZCP Cert C&A Psych is a Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist and Founder of Little Children Big Dreams which provides online help for children who are afraid of the dark or scared of monsters –

Little Children Big Dreams offers personalized printable stories and parent guides to help children beat their fears of monsters or fears of the dark and sleep better at night. Parents visiting the Little Children Big Dreams website will also find Dr Kaylene Henderson’s blog providing free access to Child Psychiatry tips and information –

  1. buggeritliz

    2nd August 2014 at 3:11 pm,

    MoM Rewards: buggeritliz has a diamond MoM rewards level buggeritliz said:

    Maybe this article should be on the back of a shopper docket would help so many more mum’s. Haven’t we all seen or had this screaming child in the shopping centre or park. Great article I sent it to a couple of my friends they loved it too!

  2. hayley91

    31st July 2014 at 10:31 pm,

    MoM Rewards: hayley91 has a diamond MoM rewards level hayley91 said:

    I have 2 screaming little girls so this will be really handy thank you I already do most of it but their was a couple of points that I need to improve on

  3. eestigirl

    24th May 2014 at 4:36 pm,

    MoM Rewards: eestigirl has a diamond MoM rewards level eestigirl said:

    What a great explanation! If I was really upset I would like to be helped that way!

  4. mom57522

    19th May 2014 at 8:56 pm,

    MoM Rewards: mom57522 has a diamond MoM rewards level mom57522 said:

    Take a deep breath and stay calm.

  5. catgrrl3

    16th May 2014 at 10:44 am,

    MoM Rewards: catgrrl3 has a diamond MoM rewards level catgrrl3 said:

    staying calm is the best way, but I too find it easy to get swept up in the tears, cause I suffer from anxiety, and cant stand seeing any distress

  6. cherz

    2nd May 2014 at 10:15 pm,

    MoM Rewards: cherz has a diamond MoM rewards level cherz said:

    Very informative ..and wonderful helpful read. Thank you.

  7. mummy liana

    24th March 2014 at 10:41 pm,

    MoM Rewards: mummy liana has a diamond MoM rewards level mummy liana said:

    thank you sharing this article good read

  8. linda197

    22nd March 2014 at 6:37 pm,

    MoM Rewards: linda197 has a diamond MoM rewards level linda197 said:

    It so hard when our little ones have a melt down and I have to say at first I use to think oh no what will i do! Your technique really works well for us with our little man – thanks for sharing hope it helps others

  9. mummy liana

    3rd March 2014 at 3:24 pm,

    MoM Rewards: mummy liana has a diamond MoM rewards level mummy liana said:

    thanks for sharing was a great read

  10. yyon4699

    27th January 2014 at 7:38 pm,

    MoM Rewards: yyon4699 has a diamond MoM rewards level yyon4699 said:

    Very informative. Thank you for this

  11. bubble6369

    13th January 2014 at 1:31 am,

    MoM Rewards: bubble6369 has a diamond MoM rewards level bubble6369 said:

    i really enjoyed this article thanks for sharing and i think we have felt a little stuck when what to do with a screaming child and keeping it together

  12. stacey_max

    7th January 2014 at 10:30 pm,

    MoM Rewards: stacey_max has a diamond MoM rewards level stacey_max said:

    What an interesting article! Thanks.

  13. 3rd January 2014 at 11:29 pm,

    MoM Rewards: sizzlingcool has a diamond MoM rewards level sizzlingcool said:

    Changing the subject totally away from what has happened works wonders and the subject must be happy and familiar to connect instantly. It’s amazing how immediately you can move stress and fear to a cheerful outcome. Try it?

  14. ljsalomon

    2nd January 2014 at 9:58 am,

    MoM Rewards: ljsalomon has a diamond MoM rewards level ljsalomon said:

    Interesting to read – thanks for sharing

  15. meimei

    30th December 2013 at 4:22 pm,

    MoM Rewards: meimei has a diamond MoM rewards level meimei said:

    Helpful tips for me – thank you :)

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