Meltdowns are something we all deal with. Our children are still learning how to navigate their painful and uncomfortable feelings, so they especially need support during these times, to co-regulate. Every family is different and every child is different, so it is important to be flexible and only take this advice as a guideline. Find a way for it to work for you and leave the stuff that does not resonate with you or your family. This example is a pretty common one, that I think most families have experienced, in one way or another.

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Our eldest had a meltdown the other day because we wanted him to put away his LEGO’s, that were on the kitchen table, so we could have supper. First, he protested, then he bartered, then he out right refused. He ended up running up to his room, crying, yelling and stomping his feet. My husband looked at me and asked “now, what do I do? Do I go see him or …..?” I said (annoyingly, I’m sure), “well this is one of those situations that behaviourists and attachment theorists would disagree about.

Behaviourists would say to ignore the behaviour because if you acknowledge it, you are sending the message that the behaviour is acceptable. On one hand this is true, but why is he acting this way? He’s upset because he’s having fun and we’re stopping him from playing. Those feelings are perfectly valid. His reaction to run off on his own, is a common and somewhat healthy coping strategy. He likely does want to reconnect with us, so what I would do is go upstairs and say ‘I can see your really mad. I know it’s not fun to stop playing for supper’ and then go from there, but then the LEGO’s still have to go away for supper.”

Modelling Graciousness

Now in this case my son was so upset that I chose to model graciousness and I cleaned up the LEGO’s myself. Why did I choose this option, this time? Because having another battle about cleaning up was not going to achieve anything. If he was not so upset, I would have tried to encourage him to tidy them up himself. He cleans his toys up all the time, so I choose when to encourage this. It is a personal choice based on your family values and your child’s temperament and current emotional state. I could tell that the issue was not that he simply did not want to clean up but that he did not want to stop playing for supper.

Jean Piaget said “play is the work of childhood.”

Albert Einstein said “play is the highest form of research.”

We can get so focused on trying to get our children to “behave” that we forget they are communicating with us. It might not be the way we want them to express themselves but children are still learning effective communication skills. Is the goal to force them to pick up their LEGO’s and stop crying? Or is the goal to help validate their feelings and support their emotional growth, while encouraging them to learn healthy and effective coping strategies?

Behaviour is Communication

I try not to see behaviour as defiant but as communication; he’s communicating how he feels. Our job is not to punish him for his reaction to his feelings, but to help him find more effective ways to negotiate his emotions and communicate his needs. When we punish, we use fear to achieve compliance and obedience. Not a parenting strategy I’m personally comfortable with. We also send the message that “your big feelings are unacceptable around me. I will not support you when you need me the most.” This teaches children to stuff down their feelings in order to please the caregiver and isolate themselves in times of distress, instead of seeking help.

This disconnection is often at the core of many physical and mental health issues. It is also why children behave a certain way with some people, and not with others. With people who validate children’s feelings and try not to change them, children tend to feel safer to express their thoughts and emotions. Often, this part of the theory gets a lot of push-back from the more traditional, behavioural parents and professionals, who may say, “well he only acts like that around you because you give in to him.” My response to them is, “are you trying to say ‘he feels safe to express his emotions freely around me because I validate how he feels and try and support him as he learns about how emotions effect his body, mind and behaviour?’ Then yes, that’s what I’m doing. It works great!”

Here are 5 steps to help you respond to your child’s meltdowns:

Step 1: Empathize

“Empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s a foundation for acting ethically, for good relationships of many kinds, for living well, and for professional success. And its key to preventing bullying and many other forms of cruelty.” 

Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Help your child to acknowledge their feelings; “you seem really angry right now” this helps your child to learn how to express their feelings with verbal language. I don’t care for the expression “use your words” because we would never say this to an adult. If an adult was having difficulty expressing themselves verbally, we would ask them to “tell me what’s going on.” With my child, I say “can you tell me how your feeling right now?”

Step 2: Identify

Help your child to identify the sensations in their body “how does it feel to be angry? Where do you feel it? Is it in your chest, your tummy? What does that feel like?” If they can’t express these thoughts yet, talk about how you feel when you are mad “when I’m mad, it feels like there is a fire in my chest.” At first my son would get frustrated and say “I don’t know how it feels, I just feel angry.” This type of reaction could cause a parent to feel disheartened with the strategy and say “it’s not working, he won’t tell me how he feels.” But that is not really the goal. The goal is to support your child as they learn to navigate the emotional sensations and thoughts that they experience everyday and learn how those feelings can effect their behaviour.

This is called the mind-body-behaviour connection and it is the premise of many types of therapies. When we do not validate children’s feelings and try to brush them off as being petty, entitled, too sensitive or minuscule, unworthy of upset, we actually begin to encourage a disconnect between these areas. The communication between these areas is key to self-regulation, so although our child may stop “acting out,” they are actually reducing their long term ability to manage emotions and regulate behaviour. It’s not really self-regulation, it’s fear.

Step 3: Offer Comfort

Then you can try asking your child if they would like a hug. This not only provides a very natural co-regulation strategy, but it lets the child know you are not mad at them. If you are currently transitioning to a more responsive, gentler approach, this part may be crucial to changing the previous patterns of your interactions. Your child may still expect you to respond with anger, disappointment, frustration, but when you demonstrate acceptance and understanding, you may see a look of shock, relief and comfort on your child’s face. People sometimes worry that if we offer comfort when children are upset, we are saying ‘I accept your behaviour.’ What we are really saying is ‘I accept your emotions and I am here to support you.’

Step 4: Discuss

Now you can try asking your child if they want to talk about what happened. If they are calm, you can guide them through self-reflection by saying, “I know you were really angry about putting your LEGO’s away. I felt worried when you slammed your door. The door could break and it is very loud and kind of scary. How did you feel when you slammed the door?” At this point people often insert a punishment or some sort of shame or guilt inducing statement. Stop yourself, watch your child’s face when you do not condemn them and you accept their mistake. Once again you will see a massive sense of relief, comfort and genuine remorse. If you had punished them or condemned them, they may have become defensive and angry again. Punishment has been proven to, at times, elicit temporary compliance, but overtime, self-regulation and mental health suffers.

Step 5: Strategize

Then discuss strategies for processing painful feelings, “so next time you are angry, what do you think you could do?” If they are still upset then you can say “It is okay to be angry. I get angry too sometimes. Would you like my help to calm down?” If they say yes, then you can ask “what do you think would help you to calm down right now?” If they are unable to strategize on their own, you can offer suggestions- yoga, mindfulness, reading a book together, cuddling, a walk, sensory exploration, outdoor play.

We made a book called “what I can do when I’m upset” it has all kinds of strategies with pictures of my son actually doing the calming techniques. He loves it and often says, when he is upset, “I know, I can go get my book.” You can have all these calming things in a relaxation corner/tent. This often helps parents make the transition from time-out to time-in. If your child says they do not want your help to calm down, then let them know “ok, I see you need your space right now. Your calming corner is over there if you want to use it. I’m going to go back to the kitchen. Come get me if you need me (or I’ll be up to check on you in a bit).” It is very important not to force a calming strategy. It should never be a requirement to return to the family.

The LEGO Resolution

In our situation with the LEGO’s my son came down after my husband went up. I heard him upstairs saying to my husband “guess what? I got an idea! How about I can clean up my LEGO’s and then we have supper and then I can play with my LEGO’s again?! And we can build it together!” When he came down and saw that I had cleaned them up for him, he said “Mom, you cleaned up all my LEGO’s? Thank you so much! I’m sorry I was screaming.” I said “that’s okay. I know you were angry. I scream too sometimes when I’m angry. Maybe next time we can try talking about it first?” He responded “hey, that’s a great idea!”

This transformation has taken 6 months (originally written in 2017). In the last month or so, I have noticed a remarkable difference in my son’s self-regulation skills and his ability to articulate his feelings and his needs. I think a lot of it has been a result of typical development but I do think part of the reason my son has become so articulate about his feelings and his needs, as well as so willing to resolve an issue, is because I have built back our trust through using this method to respond to his meltdowns and emotional needs. Try it and see what happens with your family!

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For advice on how to respond to toddler meltdowns read:

For advice on how to respond to public meltdowns read:

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