7 Parenting tips for managing the meltdowns of easily distressed children parentmap electricity drinking game

For Dora, it was yet another meltdown morning. She skulked into my office, treating it like a confessional, and reviewed the school scene that just happened with Sammy, her 7-year-old. He dawdled through getting dressed, and then things went from bad to worse when he screamed about his seat belt, threatened to throw up and refused to go into his classroom. She shared how her exasperation and efforts to cajole him intensified his meltdown. Dora said this was business as usual.

Highly sensitive children have an inborn temperament that renders them reactive to internal and external experiences. These children are called “anxious,” “difficult,” “easily distressed,” “explosive” and “highly emotional.” Parents often find them rigid and inflexible. They usually have a tough time with transitions, unfamiliar circumstances, new activities and even mild stressors. They can’t help it. But what’s a parent to do?

Imagine a scale, a “distress-o-meter” of 1 to 10. What stresses the average child (like becoming physically uncomfortable, excluded, frustrated with a task) and registers on the meter as the orange zone of 6 or 7 is experienced by your child as an 8, 9 or 10 which is the red zone. Your child will be hysterical, irrational, screaming, resistive and absolutely out of control. Getting mad at the child in the red zone is like throwing grease on a fire. Better to be in the green, cool zone yourself.

Routine expectations for a child (like bedtime, going to school, team sports) may seem to you like they should be mild stressors, but they can be experienced as major ones for anxious children. You might judge that these things shouldn’t throw your child’s emotional throttle to the red zone, but it won’t help him learn self calming. Only lots of cognitive and emotional re-training will do so. And don’t be quick to think that this is just a therapist’s job, because if the child goes home to their most intimate, loving attachment figures (parents) who are angry, exasperated and judgmental the child’s brain will be in too much of a chronic firestorm to learn coping and calming techniques.

In brain terms, when your child is having a meltdown, he is having an “amygdala hijack.” The emotional part of his brain is reacting to a stressor as if it were a predator, which triggers a “fight, flight, freeze” reaction. Parents of these children need to develop skills in calming themselves so that they can help their children learn to calm themselves. In an airplane emergency, the oxygen bag needs to first go to the parent so that she can then optimally help her child.

What did Dora do with her son’s meltdown at school? Dora was reasonable, but classically ineffective. She reassured him and told him there was “nothing to be afraid of,” that he was “not really sick, just nervous” and to “just calm down.” She reminded him that he was going to be late for school and that he’d feel better if he would just “get going” with the school day. He screamed louder.

Rational and intelligent parents can easily fall into the trap of doing all the wrong things with riled up kids. Dora’s reassurance is remarkable in how typical it is and how spectacularly it can fail to help accomplish the goals of calming the child and inspiring compliance. Whether the anxiety is triggered by a birthday party, soccer practice or homework, fear is in the mind of the beholder and is not something to be argued during a meltdown.

Dora needs to do what clinical psychologists are taught to do in emergency situations: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, first “do no harm,” which means parents should be quiet and think very carefully about what they say and transmit emotionally to their sensitive children. An exasperated parental tone or edge in the voice can take a child from a state of anxious worry to screaming hysteria.

Neuro-imaging research has documented what we’ve always known intuitively — that when one person’s brain spikes in anxiety and distress, the one nearby activates in tandem. Kids know what their parents are feeling about them. Sensitive children can detect even mildly negative feelings, and their meltdowns can spiral downward if their parents are thinking, “Oh, no, here she goes again,” “I don’t have time for this ridiculousness” and “Why can’t she be like other children?”

Yes, it’s true. Anxious children do better with Zen Buddhists as parents. In the meantime, the rest of us should try to achieve as calm an emotional state as possible when responding to extremely anxious children. Here are more helpful guidelines: