Attention Customers: Meltdown on Aisle Two!

“Attention Customers: Meltdown on Aisle Two!” When your child has a meltdown in a public place, like a grocery store, it can sometimes feel as if everyone present is staring and judging you. Embarrassed and frustrated. it may be difficult to know how to handle the situation. Do you give in to them by bribing them to be quiet? Yell or scream? Walk out of the store mortified?

The good news is you can handle, or even prevent meltdowns through emotional coaching with five easy steps. After reading this article, you will feel empowered and equipped to handle these difficult behaviors in a healthy way.

Alexandra Batalla, RCSWI, School Based Mental Health Therapist at Gulf Gate Elementary School

So, what is emotional coaching and how does it help with meltdowns? Emotional coaching is the practice of tuning into a child’s feelings, and helping them learn to cope with, and self-regulate, intense emotions like fear, anger, and sadness.

Step One: Calm Yourself First

So here you are on aisle two, your child is having a meltdown and you are over it. However, if you are not calm, it can make matters worse by resulting in a power struggle between you and your child.

So, what should you do?

  • Pause and breathe. Notice how your body is feeling so you can determine how to respond effectively.
  • Connect with your child. Ask your child what’s really bugging them. Being curious and taking a wondering approach to the emotion can sometimes feel less threatening. For example, you can ask your child, “I’m wondering if you are feeling mad because I wouldn’t buy you cookies.”
  • Use a bird’s eye view. The more you are able to see yourself above the problem, the less intense your problem feels.

Step Two: Be Aware of Your Child’s Emotion

Once you figure out what your child is feeling and accept those feelings, it sends a message to the child that all feelings are okay, even the worse ones.

  • Observe, listen, and learn. You can get ahead of situations by knowing how your child expresses different emotions.
  • Watch for warning signs. Changes in facial expressions, body language, posture, and tone of voice can indicate a meltdown is coming on.
  • Use warning cues to prevent meltdowns. Using these warning signs or cues can help with recognizing emotions in your child before they escalate.  Instead of dismissing, changing, or denying their emotion, explore them by asking them “Are you okay? I am noticing that you are starting to get upset, is it because you can’t get a cookie?”

Step Three: Connect With Your Child

View their emotions as opportunities for connection and teaching. When you connect with your child in intense moments, it helps them to feel safe and understood. When a child feels safe, emotions are easier to manage.

  • See the situation through their eyes. Remember how real the emotion is to them and how their emotions are still developing. Accepting their emotion does not mean accepting their negative behavior.
  • Describe the incident without judgment. Telling the story helps the child to calm down, reflect, and integrate emotions.

Step Four: Label and Validate the Feelings-at-Hand

It is important to help a child label their emotions because it helps them become more aware of what they are feeling. For example, “I can see you’re feeling angry right now.” Or, “You look disappointed.” The more a child learns to build their emotional vocabulary, the less that they will display fewer behavior problems because they can express themselves in better ways. Experiencing an emotion is always acceptable and should be acknowledged.  

  • Validate the Emotion.  It can be useful to say, “It makes sense that you feel upset because you can’t get the cookies you want.
  • Refrain from judging them. Instead, accept their emotions by telling your child it’s okay to feel. It is also useful to talk about your own emotions to show them how to label them.  i.e. “I would feel mad if I wasn’t able to buy what I wanted. I wonder if that is what you’re feeling right now?”
  • Let them correct your assumption. Your child corrects you when you label their emotions and says, “I’m not mad!” That’s a signal that your child is feeling judged or analyzed rather than understood. Acknowledge the correction and start over, connecting more as you describe the child’s perspective: “I hear you. You’re not mad. Let me see if I understand. You wanted cookies. Is that right?” Most of the time, when kids (and adults) feel their emotions are understood and accepted, the feelings lose their charge and begin to dissipate.

Step five: Set Limits While Helping the Child Problem Solve

The response during this last step will depend on the child’s ability level and emotional state at the time. Setting limits means being able to say “no” to your child when necessary and not giving in to displays of angry emotional outbursts. But before we set limits and start problem-solving we have to consider their safety before setting limits.

  • Assess the situation. If the child is in a heightened and distressed state, the priority is safety and the need to give them time to recover.
  • Set limits on behavior. Once the child is calm, you may need to set limits on behavior first. For example, “These are the rules we have to follow, doing that is not ok.” Or, “We can’t behave like that, even though you are feeling annoyed because it’s not safe.”

Here are more ways you can express understanding to your child.

  •  Just being present for your child and helping them through a challenge (so they know they can count on you to understand them) is the most helpful part of problem-solving.
  •  You may need to offer a solution to start – “Why don’t we use the sand timer so you can see how much time you have left to play?” “This isn’t a safe place to be angry, let’s go to a safe place to talk.”
  • For some structure to help them solve problems, you can give them two options. I.e. “You need to sit next to Emma or in front of me, which do you want?
  • If they suggest a solution that you think would lead to more problems, you might say: “Hmmm…. So, you think you might do X. I wonder what would happen then?”
  • Resist the urge to tell them what to do to solve the problem; that gives your child the message that you don’t have confidence in their ability to handle it. If your child feels stuck, help them brainstorm and explore options.
  • If your child still seems upset and negative and isn’t open to problem-solving, that’s a sign that he hasn’t worked through the emotions yet and you need to go back to the earlier steps.

So, there you have it, five steps to manage a meltdown.  The most important thing about managing the meltdowns on aisle two is to make sure your child is safe and able to connect to their feelings and that they have been acknowledged. Once you do this, your child will be more open to correction.

About the Author: Alexandra Batalla, RCSWI, is a school-based mental health therapist at Gulf Gate Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.