Understanding kids meltdowns: What to do when children are very angry or overwhelmed
One of the most powerful ways to help children act more calmly, more often – and to reduce angry behaviour – is to coach them in developing frustration management skills.
These skills include the following:
- Using appropriate language to express their feelings and desires
- Asking for help when needed,
- Using self-soothing strategies,
- Switching attention away from difficult situations,
- Noticing “angry” (blaming, non-empathic, catastrophic) thinking
- Using calm sentences to remind themselves that frustrating situations and behaviours from others are not terrible, not always intentional, often understandable and can be managed.
- Identifying potentially frustrating situations ahead of time (and planning for them);
How to help
If we want children to get better at these frustration management skills, we need to tell them why they matter and how to get better at them – and to do this when children are feeling calm. We also need to give children opportunities to practice these skills in low pressure situations.
If you noticed my italics in these last two sentences, you’ll see that children do not normally learn these skills “in the heat of the moment” when they are angry or frustrated. Instead, they learn these skills before and after frustrating situations, when both we as parents/caregivers – and children – have the time and state of mind required to talk and practice efficiently.
But what about that 5-10 minute (or much longer for some) period when children are really angry – if we can’t effectively coach them in that time – what SHOULD we do at that moment? How do we help and support them? Get through the situation safely? Get them to calm down?
There are no magic formulas – but here are some ideas some families find helpful about responding “mid meltdown” when kids are very angry or distressed.
1. Connect with an angry child where possible
When children are angry and upset, they are often anxious and overwhelmed. From their perspective, the world appears to be a scary and threatening place. If we can help them feel supported and understood during that time then they sometimes become less angry. This is called “connecting” with the child.
Here are some options (these are not “rules” – whether or not they are appropriate will depend on the parent and the child) for connecting with an angry child:
- We might show care and concern on our face or in our tone of voice (children are often watching and hearing a tone of voice even more than the words we say).
- We might also say something which expresses care and concern: “I’m sorry you are feeling so cross”, “This is a tough situation”
- We might express their feelings for them if they can’t: “It seems you feel pretty disappointed about that”, “You feel like this is really unfair”
- We might stay near them (when safe to do so): “I’m going to hang out here with you because I know this is a tough situation”
- (If safe for us to do so), We might make ourselves smaller by getting at or below their eye level to help them feel less threatened by us.
- We might offer physical affection: “would you like a hug” or cautiously touch them on the shoulder if we think they are open to us doing so.
Connecting with children in this way is not easy to do if we are also feeling angry or upset ourselves, so we might need to take a moment to look after ourselves first (breathing deeply, reminding ourselves “I’m okay”, “I can be here for my child”, “my child is having a problem, not being a problem”.
2. Use Move and Remove Strategies to keep everyone safe
Angry and upset children are sometimes physically aggressive – toward themselves, others or towards property. To prevent this and keep them and others safe, it might be appropriate to use MOVE or REMOVE strategies.
For example, using a firm, confident and friendly voice (and facial expression) we might do the following:
- We might move other children away from them: “I am going to get (other child) to sit over there for a minute so we can all stay safe”
- We might move other objects in the room: “I know you don’t want to break this, so I will put it up here for now”
- We might remove objects the child is using to hurt others or damage property, first asking “May I have that so we don’t hurt anything?” and then if the child refuses, try to take it from them (if safe to do so): “I am going to take this and put it away for now, we will get it back out when things are calmer”
- We might need to move ourselves: “I know you don’t really want to hurt me, and you doing that hurts, so I am going to step away for a minute”
Sometimes we might have to move even further away or put something between ourselves and the child: “It is dangerous for me here while you are hurting me, so I am going to stand over here/go over here/stand behind this wall –I will move back closer to you to help you soon” and then “I would like to come back and help you – can you keep your hands to your side so I can be with you?”
The boy who shows an angry emotion, the concept of emotion of a violent child
3. Use Take Charge Skills to help the child calm their body, communicate or shift their attention
We might also use our “take charge” skills to help children takes steps towards using calm down (distraction, relaxation, communication) strategies when they are very angry or upset.
For example, using a firm, confident and friendly voice (and facial expression), we might do the following:
- We might help a child to relax their bodies (slower breathing and loose muscles) in various ways, for example: “Let’s take a deep breath and make our body floppy” OR “Let’s see if we can list some things we can see or hear right now”.
- We might make a small step towards coaching a child to communicate. For example we might say: Can you please tell me calmly what you want/what you are upset about? You can say please say “I want …..…” or “I am mad because…”
- We might try to engage the child in another (physical or mental) activity to help switch their attention: “We need to get your brain busy on something else to help you feel better. Would you like to do X or Y?” Or, “Let’s go out on the trampoline and see how high we can jump”
- Sometimes this might need us and them to move to an entirely different room or space can. “Let’s go outside for a few minutes” or “I’d really like to see who is in the next room, would you like to come with me?”
If a child doesn’t respond to suggestions about starting another activity/moving to another space, we might start moving/doing this ourselves first, eg: “I’m going to start playing X, I’d love it if you could play with me” or “Hmm, I am just going to poke my head out to see what is out here – you can look too if you like” Or “I’m going to watch a few minutes of (favourite show/video) – you can join me if you like”.
A few points about helping children calm their bodies, communicate or shift attention
It can sometimes help to tell children about the benefits – or even provide a small incentive – to help motivate them to use one or more of these strategies:
For example, we might say:
“If you stop yelling and come outside with me now, we can talk about that TV show you like”, “If you make your body floppy with me, I will get started on some afternoon tea” or If you tell me what you are most upset about, I will tell you my plan to help you feel better“
When children start doing one of the activities above, calming down or communicating it can be helpful to quickly praise and thank them for any steps towards this behaviour:
“you are doing a great job of managing your frustration, thank you” or “Thank you for being able to calmly tell me what happened, that’s very helpful for us both”
When we are using our kind take charge skills with children who are angry, it’s important to give short and specific instructions rather than long and complicated lectures (eg “let’s go to the next room rather than a long sentence like “lets finish this game and think about moving to another space where we can be calmer and be apart from people which might help you calm down because being angry is not helpful). Remember this is not the moment for teaching and learning – we do this later.
If we are providing choices to children rather than giving instructions, it’s important to also provide simple choices rather than ask open ended questions. (ie say Would you like to do X or Y? rather than “what do you think and what would you like to do?”)
This all sounds very positive? What about just telling kids to “cut it out”?
Some parents/caregivers are worried that showing care and concern, or offering children an incentive or telling them the benefits of them acting in calm ways might “reward” children for angry behaviour and encourage them to act in angry ways more often.
Our experience is that this is unlikely. Children do not want to act in angry ways and being cared for or being given a small incentive for calming down is generally not powerful enough to make them choose to act angrily again.
To make doubly sure this doesn’t occur, we can do the following:
- Only provide calm (not over the top or inauthentic) care and concern.
- Use a confident tone of voice when kindly talking to children about their frustration
- Make sure any incentive or benefit to acting calmly is small and appropriate (eg, we can watch TV together to calm down rather than “if you stop yelling I will buy you a toy”).
What about afterwards?
Take care of yourself
If a child has acted in overwhelmed and angry ways towards us, we may have a range of emotions and reactions.
We might feel angry ourselves and frustrated about the child’s behaviour. We might even feel like we want to “push back” or retaliate. We might feel shocked or frightened. Our primitive brain doesn’t fully recognise the age or stage of a child – only the “attack” – so feeling frightened or angry is a normal, understandable reaction. Small children also can be surprisingly destructive – I recall once having a 5 year old throw a heavy stapler at close range towards my face – it was only a last minute duck on my behalf (amazingly my sometimes slow reflexes actually came to the rescue on that occasion) which saved me from a nasty injury.
We might feel deeply worried for or hopeless about our child.
It’s important therefore to acknowledge – even just briefly – that supporting children who are angry is a difficult and emotionally tiring experience. It’s okay to take time out for ourselves. This might mean talking to a friend, taking a minute to do something distracting (read, watch something), and remind ourselves of the strengths in our child and ourselves.
Spend time coaching
Once everyone is calm, it’s tempting for everyone to just get on with life and hope the anger doesn’t happen again (or at least not soon). However this is often a mistake.
As outlined at the beginning of this article, what makes the most difference to children being able to manage their difficult feelings is having the opportunity to practice frustration management skills in the context of a loving and supportive relationship with a parent/caregiver.
Our job is to help children learn these skills – and therefore it is essential to avoid just “ignoring” children’s angry episodes.
Instead, we should usually reflect on situations in which children became frustrated – and ask them to think about – and even rehearse – alternative ways to have managed that situation. Sometimes we call this a “do-over”. These “do-overs” are really important to help children start to learn the frustration management skills above.
Of course, even with conversation, rehearsal and practice – learning to manage frustration and anger is a life long journey. It’s something many adults struggle with.
But it is a journey we can support them with, and help them manage much more effectively.
If you would like your 5-11 year old child to access a course on managing frustration, you might like to consider Calm Kid Central. It has videos, activity sheets and discussion guides to help children understand and manage frustration.
This article was provided by Developing Minds Psychology and Education
Visit Calm Kid Central
About Developing Minds
Children and teens experience tough times just like adults do. They feel sad, worried, stressed, angry, frustrated and overwhelmed. They don’t quite know how to cope with stress, they need help learning to act in positive ways, they struggle with relationships and benefit from support in many other ways.
Developing Minds specialise in helping children and teens – and the people who support them. For nearly 20 years, Developing Minds Psychology and Education has cared for, supported and worked with thousands of South Australian children and young people. Working with children ranging from the age of 4 through to 17, the team are fully qualified child psychologists and work with children and teens, and then depending on their age, also with their parents. If appropriate we also work with schools and other supports. We have two clinics in Adelaide (city and south).
You might also like:
Top Things To Do With Kids in Adelaide School Holidays
I Can Jump Puddles, a leading NDIS registered provider across metropolitan Adelaide and regional SA, is bringing an award-winning, innovative program to South Australian families to deliver positive results for children with disability or developmental delay.
As parents or carers, you will make the biggest difference in your child’s life. Now & Next gives you the practical skills to do this.
Now & Next is a group program that helps parents and carers of young children with a disability or developmental delay cultivate skills to feel confident in achieving real life, positive outcomes for their child, family and themselves. It teaches families about setting goals and provides them with opportunities to connect with other families to inform, support and motivate each other to aim high and see new opportunities for their child now and in the future.
What is the Now & Next Program?
The Now & Next program is designed to educate and empower parents and carers to achieve positive outcomes – for their child with disability, their family and themselves. The program helps families develop their skills as they choose goals and work towards them with new purpose. The Now & Next program uses a strength-based and family-centred approach to support parents and carers on their journey.
What will I learn?
You will learn how to:
- Identify a vision for your child, family and self
- Set three goals (and reach them!) during the course
- Reflect on the strengths of your child and family
- Identify your signature strengths and learn how to use them to achieve your goals
- Create positive relationships with professionals
- Increase the well-being and resilience of yourself, your child and your family.
About the Program
The Now & Next program is delivered in sessions of 2 hours held over 8 weeks.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and given the social distancing rules and widespread closures, the program will now look a little different than originally planned, but press ahead nonetheless! The course will be conducted via video based seminars on a weeknight. This important change means I Can Jump Puddles can continue to deliver the course, in a safe way, at possibly the most important time for hope and connection!
The course is delivered via Zoom video conference as 2 hour weekly sessions over an eight-week period, from 8.00 – 10.00pm. All material necessary to participate in this program will be mailed to you once your registration has been confirmed and finalised with a Now and Next team member.
The course cost can be claimed through NDIS Capacity Building funding for Improved Daily Living – as training for parents/carers in matters related to caring for a person with a disability.
Start now to build a network of support
Past participants have greatly valued being together with other families who are raising children with a developmental delay or disability. A first of its kind in Australia, this parent led, evidence-based program provides the opportunity for families to:
- Share their stories with each other in a safe environment
- Learn about new strategies and ideas from each other
- Build new relationships and a network of support
- Empower and inspire each other to ‘get in the driver’s seat’ and take charge of their journey
- Connect with other families through the Now and Next Alumni where you can continue to build your knowledge.
To enrol or find out more:
About I Can Jump Puddles
I Can Jump Puddles works with you and for you. As a leading NDIS registered provider across metropolitan Adelaide and regional SA, I Can Jump Puddles provides specialised, independent and individual support to NDIS participants of all ages, tailored to help families work towards their goals, jump puddles and enjoy life. Supporting children, young people and adults with a range of services I Can Jump Puddles can help you research and negotiate with providers to help you reach your goals, participate in the community and support your family.
You might also like:
SA’S LOCAL HERO EMMAH MONEY BEATING THE ODDS
CALLING ALL JUNIOR CHEF’S
We’ve found Adelaide’s best kids cooking classes
Kiddos love kitchens! Whether it’s helping to mix the cake batter (and eating half of it in the process), or learning how to distribute just the right amount of pizza topping, kids love to get involved, and it’s the perfect opportunity for us as parents to teach the importance of eating healthy food, and even squeeze in a sneaky maths lesson with the weighing of ingredients and calculations of cooking times.
And let’s be honest; we all just want kids who will one day grow up and be able to cook themselves more than just the humble toastie.
That’s where Adelaide’s best kids cooking classes come in. If you’re stressed about too much egg shell in the batter, or just don’t know where to start with teaching the kids how to cook simple, easy recipes, are short on time or just don’t like the mess, then why not get the professionals involved?
Of course, as always, Adelaide delivers, with a number of cooking schools offering a range of kids cooking classes; and we’ve found the best for you!
Kids cooking with floury faces, sticky fingers, mucky aprons and messy bench tops are on the menu at Scoffed School of Food and Fun.
It doesn’t matter whether your child can mix ingredients together in a bowl, knows how to slice and dice, or what cross chopping is. Every week there is excitement, laughter, new experiences and great tasting food in Adelaide’s largest cooking school kitchen for kids aged 5+.
You’ll be blown away by what your child whips up and scoffs down at our kids cooking classes! They will learn the tricks of the trade, and how to make everything from perfectly boiled eggs to curries, pizzas and even dumplings.
- A yummy kids’ meal at the end of every class (with leftovers to take away if there are any)
- All ingredients
- A big dose of fun (giggling fits optional)
- Meeting new taste buddies and using a bit of the boring stuff they learn at school (that’ll be maths and English!)
- Recipes to take home
Scoffed Cooking School
441/D Magill Road, St Morris SA 5068. (Enter via Williams Ave)
If you have a budding chef, keen foodie or someone who needs a little food inspiration, Sprout kids classes are perfect!
At Sprout kids classes, kids learn to cook fresh, seasonal and healthy meals, from scratch, in the Sprout kitchen, using proper equipment and all by themselves. No cupcake decorating here, just real food and real skills.
Sprout offers a range of cooking and nutrition services aimed at educating children about the importance of eating well and providing them with the skills to do so. Sprout doesn’t tell children what “not to eat”, but rather make healthy food delicious, fun and achievable.
All Sprout kids cooking classes are inclusive of all children, use positive reinforcing language, encourage interaction, teamwork and respect between children and are designed to positively challenge children with new cooking techniques, real responsibility and some unfamiliar ingredients.
Children with dietary requirements are absolutely welcome to attend Sprout cooking classes and all Sprout staff have completed the nationally accredited course Dietary Requirements Awareness and Safety.
With two sessions to choose from, a morning session for ages 5-11 and an afternoon session for ages 12-16, all your junior chefs will have a chance to be part of the fun.
89 Sir Donald Bradman Drive, Hilton
HomeFresh Experience Cooking
HomeFresh will inspire your kids to cook and eat healthy food, with a cooking program that has been carefully constructed to build children’s confidence in the kitchen, develop their cooking, knife and general kitchen skills, and help them learn one of life’s most important lessons; cooking healthy food from scratch for themselves and others.
Your kids will:
- Learn to shop and cook with our HomeFresh chef
- Develop a broad understanding of nutrition and cooking healthy food
- Grow in confidence and their ability to interact with others (much more than a cooking class)
- Learn how to select fresh healthy and nutritious produce
- Leave home with fantastic junior chef’s skills if you help us help them
With school holiday fun shopping and cooking programs, birthday parties, and the Junior Chefs 4 hats cooking lessons (a comprehensive program of progressive lessons from beginner to advanced) there are a variety of options offered by HomeFresh to cater to those looking for one off classes or an ongoing course for the future family chef!
The Golden Grove Village Shopping Centre, Golden Way, Golden Grove
The Kids Kitchen TAFE SA
TAFE SA offers The Kids Kitchen Growing Gourmet school holiday programs, where kids can lear to make either sweet and savoury dishes.
All classes will involve the preparation of a range of sweet and savoury dishes and will be taught by professional chefs in the TAFE SA world-class training facilities. All prepared food will be available to be taken home, unless consumed beforehand.
Participants in ‘The Kids Kitchen’ will be divided into age groups (numbers permitting) for their classes.
The Kids Kitchen TAFE SA
137 Days Rd, Regency Park
Big Market Adventures for Little Foodies
Adelaide Central Market
The folks at the Adelaide Central Market are passionate about starting from ground level and teaching the next generation how to prepare healthy, easy and tasty meals together with nutritional advice. Why? Because good health starts in the kitchen! All of the produce will be fresh from market stalls and the team from Sprout ensure the classes are not only fun and interactive but have an educational focus too. Each class includes a small take away meal of the dish they prepare.
Big Market Adventures for Little Foodies is run in the school holidays. For more information about availability:
Adelaide Central Market
44 – 60 Gouger St, Adelaide SA 5000
You might also like
Getting the low down on unhealthy foods
We live in a time when we are confronted with the complex realities of race, racial identity and racism every day. Sometimes it’s not easy to know how to talk to kids about race, but starting these conversations and getting your kids thinking about it is important. Choosing books that acknowledge that all of us are different in some way, and seeking out stories of multidimensional characters living complex lives can help to cultivate a diverse library and help us to know where and how to start.
We’ve put together a list of picture books that might help you start conversations with your kids about honouring the beauty of people’s differences.
All are Welcome
No matter how you start your day, What you wear when you play, Or if you come from far away, All are welcome here.
Follow a group of children through a day in their school, where everyone is welcome. A school where children in patkas, hijabs, baseball caps and yarmulkes play side by side. A school where students grow and learn from each other’s traditions. A school where diversity is a strength. Warm and inspiring, All Are Welcome lets young children know that no matter what, they have a place, they have a space, and they are welcome in their school.
Celebrate diversity and inclusion with this New York Times bestselling picture book about a school where all are welcome!
Happy in our Skin
Is there anything more splendid than a baby’s skin? Cocoa-brown, cinnamon, peaches and cream.
As children grow, their clever skin does, too, enjoying hugs and tickles, protecting them inside and out, and making them one of a kind.
Fran Manushkin’s rollicking text and Lauren Tobia’s delicious illustrations paint a breezy and irresistible picture of the human family and how wonderful it is to be just who you are.
Babies around the World
Bonjour! Ça va? Say hello to international babies as you tour the world from morning to nighttime.
The journey starts on a sunny day in New York City and ends on a beautiful San Francisco night, with stops in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Cape Town, Cairo, Beijing, and Tokyo.
These friendly babies welcome us to their cities with delightful greetings in their original languages (with English translations) in a simple narration that will appeal to any global mini citizen.
More, More, More, Said the Baby
Vera B Williams
The spontaneity and delight of play is captured perfectly in this trio of multigenerational, multiracial “love stories” about three pairs of babies and their grown-ups. Told in a natural, colloquial tone, the simple, engaging text is finely honed with a rhythm that is musical.
The adorable and multicultural More, More, More Said the Baby gives parents an opportunity to talk about the different races of the characters and then expand that conversation at the same time to talk about people of different ethnicities in your child’s life.
Whoever you are
Every day all over the world, children are laughing and crying, playing and learning, eating and sleeping. They may not look the same. They may not speak the same language. Their lives may be quite different. But inside, they are all alike.
Stirring words and bold paintings weave their way around our earth, across cultures and generations. At a time when, unfortunately, the lessons of tolerance still need to be learned, Whoever You Are urges us to accept our differences, to recognise our similarities, and-most importantly-to rejoice in both.
I’m Australian Too
Many people from many places have come across the seas to make Australia their home. How Australian is that? From countries near and far, many have made their home in Australia, sharing it with the original inhabitants, and living in peace beneath the Southern Star. Mem Fox celebrates Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage in this beautiful book illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh.
We’re Different, We’re the Same
Who better than Sesame Street to teach us that we may all look different on the outside, but it’s important to remember that deep down, we are all very much alike. We all have the same needs, desires, and feelings.
Elmo and his Sesame Street friends help teach toddlers and the adults in their lives that everyone is the same on the inside, and it’s our differences that make this wonderful world, which is home to us all, an interesting and special place.
This enduring, colourful, and charmingly illustrated book offers an easy, enjoyable way to learn about differences and what truly matters. It is an engaging read for toddlers and adults alike.