How do I help my child when they are in the middle of a meltdown?
To answer this question, I want to share with you a little about the brain. If you haven’t gotten ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ yet, and you are asking this question, buy it or borrow it from your library! It contains tangible strategies to support your child.
In the book Siegel and Bryson talk about not only surviving through these meltdowns, but being able to make them moments to thrive. We can take these opportunities to help our children better organize their feelings so they’re able to not only get through the tragedy of not playing with the red truck, but they are able to cope with life’s stressors in the future. Isn’t that what we all want for our children?
You might have heard, but if not, I’ll break it down. There are two sides to the brain, the left side and the right side. The left side likes words, to put things in order, and to make lists; whereas the right side is more “holistic and nonverbal”, caring about facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. The right side of our brain cares about images, emotions, memories, and is more intuitive and emotional. Another helpful thing to remember is that the right brain is more influenced by the body and lower brain areas (like our fight or flight responses).
It’s important to know the differences between each side because when your child is having a meltdown, their right brain is the one “doing the talking”. They have very little access to their left-brain in this moment.
This is why many times when you say “ If you don’t stop crying…” it doesn’t usually work. It’s nearly impossible for them to have logical thoughts while they are fully in their right brain emotion. Very young children are right brain dominant because they haven’t fully developed their language making is difficult to describe their emotions! Our job as parents is to help our children integrate the right and the left-brain. These meltdown moments are the times where the brain needs support to horizontally integrate the right and the left-brain.
One strategy Siegel and Bryson like to call “Connect and Re-direct”. Since you know that your child is in their right brain at the moment, it’s important to connect with them on a right brain level first.
I’ll give an example that happened with my daughter yesterday. She was in a pushcart with a box and both her and the box couldn’t fit. She started whining and I saw her trying to push the box to squeeze it to fit. I looked at her and matched her facial expression, and said, “You’re trying to fit the box in the cart but it won’t fit. You’re really frustrated” and I nodded my head.” She looked at me and then put the box on the ground. I then said “why don’t you play with the box on the ground?” She climbed out of the cart and she continued playing. This is what we would call connect and redirect. I had to first connect with the emotion of her right brain: frustrated. Then, I could re-direct her, which is processed in the left-brain. If I gave her an example of something else to do while she was still whining and frustrated, she would not have been able to hear it, and would have probably been more frustrated.
I also want stress that this little moment is not going to happen so effectively every time. It is going to take some trial and error on what works best for you and your child. It’s like a muscle that needs to be strengthened. Practicing this daily with our little ones is how they begin to organize their feelings and guide them with new ways to cope with their big emotions while integrating the left and right brains.
Remember, these emotional moments are not the best for a lecture about consequences. That is a left-brain conversation that can be done at a time when your child is in a calmer state. This doesn’t mean that consequences go out the window! It just means there is a time and place to have them, and while your child is experiences big emotions out of their right brain, it is not the time.
Try this strategy and share how this worked with your child! Feel free to throw any questions or scenario at me, and I’ll share some helpful tips on my insta story!
 (Siegel, 2011).
 (Siegel, 2011)