When Your Child Is Hellbent on Misbehaving: Time to Invite a Meltdown?

Photography: Hadas Images

By Dr Laura Markham

“Dr. Laura…You wrote: ‘Sometimes kids just need to cry…Set a reasonable limit and welcome his meltdown.’ Are you saying that I should just say no and let my son cry, and things will get better? That’s what my parents did, and I spent hours in my room crying. It wasn’t good for me, and it made me so angry at them.” – Shelly

Shelly makes a good point. Sometimes we all just need a good cry. And kids, with their immature frontal cortex, need to cry more often than adults, to heal all those feelings that are making them act out. But that’s only healing if they have a compassionate witness — the safe haven of a parent. Leaving your child to cry alone just traumatizes her, and gives her the message that she’s all alone with those scary feelings, just when she needs us most.

So when a child is acting out, remember that she’s “acting out” feelings she can’t express verbally.  That’s a signal that she has a full emotional backpack that needs emptying.  She just needs you to connect with her to help her feel safe enough.

How? You summon up all your compassion, and set a reasonable, kind limit, to give your child something to rail against. How do you know when to do this?

  • Whenever your child looks right at you and breaks the rules. (He’s trying to start a fight with you instead of feeling all those upsets inside him.)
  • Whenever your child is extremely demanding, rigid, and impossible to satisfy.

When your child is making you or others miserable, it’s a red flag that he’s miserable inside and needs your help with his big feelings. That’s your cue to step in. He’s signaling that he needs you to hold him emotionally, and maybe literally. And he’ll keep acting out until you help him.

If you punish your child for misbehaving, you’re not helping her learn to manage the emotions that are fueling her misbehavior.  Even “mild” punishments like timeouts isolate her and disconnect her from you just when she needs you most. But that doesn’t mean you don’t set limits as necessary. In fact, a limit — set empathically so she feels safe — may be just what she needs to trigger the release of her upset feelings. Crying in the safety of your loving presence restores your child to a state of well-being and connection. Once she feels good again, she’ll “act good” — because our kids naturally want to connect happily with the adults they love.

How do you set limits that help your child?

  • Be kind but firm.“Toys are not for throwing.” Usually, you’ll need to intervene physically to enforce the limit because kids in an upset state can’t control themselves. Your child needs to know it’s a firm limit. If he senses you waffling, he’ll keep fighting to change the limit rather than grieving and moving on.
  • Connect and empathize.“You’re mad that I said it’s bedtime… It’s hard to stop playing.” Feeling understood defuses the angry energy and puts your child in touch with the more vulnerable feelings that always hide behind anger — sadness, hurt, fear, disappointment, powerlessness. If you set the limit harshly, your child just stays in anger and can’t get to those underlying feelings he needs to surface.
  • Welcome the tears. Instead of shutting down your child’s emotions, welcome them. Remember that you’re helping your child heal. Once she feels safe enough to accept her emotions and let them move through her, they’ll begin to evaporate. It’s your loving, attentive presence that allows her to feel all these scary emotions and move past them. Hold her if she’ll let you, but if she’s too angry, just stay close. Be her witness. Don’t say enough to engage; just reassure: “I love you…You’re safe…Everybody feels upset sometimes…it’s good to get all your mads and sads out…I’m right here with a big hug when you’re ready.”
  • Remember that over-reacting is his way of working through past hurts. You’ve given your child a tremendous gift:  access to the feelings that were making him act out. You may think he’s over-reacting, but this is about old hurts, not the current situation. Who knows what hurts he has stored up that he needs to get off his chest?
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