The Brain Science Behind Your Child's Meltdown

Just picture it--A beautiful Saturday morning! The birds are chirping, there is a warm breeze outside, what a perfect day for the family to visit the local park for some fun. The whole family hops into the car with a cooler packed full of goodies to munch on in-between turns on the tire swing and trips down the slide. Once at the park you find a shady spot right under a giant tree. You pull out the picnic blanket, unfold the lounge chairs, and pull out the juice boxes. One hour flies by...then two...then's almost early evening and you're ready to head home to start preparing dinner. You give your child a 10 minute warning. They shout "okay" as they run up the jungle gym. You give your child a 5 minute warning. They nod, half-listening as they make their millionth trip down the spiral slide. Being the great parent you are, you give them a 1 minute warning. They look your way, but barely acknowledge you.

You pack up the all of the gear you brought with you to the park. "Time's up, it's time to go home now!" Your call came up empty. "I know you're having a lot of fun, but we need to go now, please get off of the swings." Again, no response. It felt like your voice was just another one of the birds chirping to your child who is still swinging. "Get off of the swings right now or you will have your tablet taken away for the remainder of the evening!" Finally you here, "BUT I DON'T WANT TO GO!!!" At this point you are feeling exhausted as any parent would. You drop the gear that's in your hands and head over to the swings. After some back-and-forth your child gets off of the swing tears falling down, fists clenched, as they stomp up and down in place.

You did everything correctly from a parenting standpoint. You gave a 10, 5, and 1 minute warning. You validated the enjoyment that your child was having, while staying firm with having to leave the park. You warned them of the pending consequence they would have if they did not listen to you. All of this great, great parenting yet the meltdown still occurred! But why?

The reason for why has more to do with your child's brain than it does with your parenting. Our brains are made up of a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere, an upper brain region and a lower brain region. The right hemisphere is the creative, expressive, non-verbal part of our brain. The left hemisphere is the verbal, logical, linear part of our brain. The upper brain deals with all of the complex functions like thinking of cause and effect, verbalizing our feelings, and helping us regulate our emotions. The lower brain is primal (dealing with fight/flight/freeze), emotional, and non-verbal.

When your child is in meltdown mode their upper brain is virtually non-existent. At that moment, all your child is functioning on are lower brain feelings and impulses such as screaming, crying, and stomping up and down. Anything that you say at that moment will not be registered by your child. As parents we often know that saying anything further about their behavior such as "stop that" or "get up and go to the car" often leads to a stronger flood of emotions or a frozen child balling on the floor.

At that moment, as a parent--and hopefully the one who still has their cool--your only job is to help your child calm down so that their upper brain can regain control and they can walk with you to the car. That is what we call co-regulation. Your child will see that you are calm, present, and well-regulated. This regulation signals safety for your child's brain, allowing it to get out of fight, flight, or freeze mode. Some children will respond well to some nurturing touch while they calm down (i.e. rubbing their back, hugging them, rocking them back and forth), others will respond best with just having that well-regulated person with them, on their level, riding out this emotional wave with them.

Once your child has calmed down, you can head to the car without further punitive action. Once home, you can have a conversation with your child--what were they feeling, how you were feeling, what could they have done differently (depending on their age). You can re-explain the 10, 5, and 1 minute warning rule. If a consequence had to result, inform them that the consequence was not for the meltdown itself, but for not listening after you asked them to get off of the swings.

Meltdowns are at times completely out of your control and your child's control. Sometimes after a long day in the sun children become worn out. This makes it more difficult for their upper brain to function at its best. This can then make it easier to slip into a lower brain meltdown. This is not your child's fault. It is your child being a child. The feelings themselves should never be punished, but the behavior--if disrespectful towards you or others or harmful towards you or others--deserves a discussion. As our children grow they will learn to regulate themselves better if given the proper support. When they can regulate themselves better, their meltdowns may be less intense, shorter lasting, and may occur with less disrespect or harm.