Rachel and Dan were very concerned about their preschooler’s intense anger. David had massive meltdowns and during these outbursts he hit, threw furniture, and he also threw things at Henry, the family dog. When Rachel and Dan started their work with me their first goal was to get the meltdowns under control. As you’ll see, the plan we developed was a good fit for someone David’s age and some things (for example, the way the family talked about the plan) would have to be adjusted for use with pre-teens or teenagers. These particulars are not key, however. The basic principles remain the same whether the meltdowns belong to a 3-year-old or a teenager :)
Laying the groundwork: meltdowns are good.
The first step I like to take with extreme anger and explosive meltdowns is to be sure parents see these for what they are.
Meltdowns are OK. They’re not pleasant, but they’re OK. In fact, they’re good for kids, in most cases. They allow a healthy release of anger and frustration. Both kids and adults need a way to channel or release stress, but kids, especially younger ones, shouldn’t be expected to just rationalize it away. This is a function of development. Babies, preschoolers, school-aged kids, adolescents…Humans are supposed to be more physical, more emotionally expressive, at certain points in their development. We shouldn’t try to talk them out of this. If we do, we’re denying them a needed release – and we’re also showing them that we’re not able to appreciate their point of view.
But getting mad doesn’t mean doing harm!
So meltdowns are not the problem, but this doesn’t mean that parents, siblings or pets must be negatively impacted by them. In fact, it’s very important not to allow your child to harm you or anyone else, ever. If you let your child do harm when he’s really, really mad, you teach him that it’s OK to hurt others when one is really, really mad! This is not a lesson we want to be teaching our kids. I believe it’s important that the child be disengaged from his current social environment when he’s hurting someone or damaging the family’s things. By “disengaged from the environment” I mean, for example, have the child go to his room, or you can leave the room. Disengaging from someone who’s hurting you teaches them that you will not connect with or be available to them if they hurt you. And in turn, this teaches them that they should not connect with or be available to people that hurt them. I think if more kids were getting this lesson, family violence would not occur to the extent it does today.
A proposed solution: the “cool-down” room
To help David have his meltdowns without hitting, throwing furniture, and throwing things at Henry, Rachel and Dan arranged for David to have them in a “cool-down room.”
The cool-down room was a large-ish half-bathroom. Rachel and Dan put big cushions in the corner of the bathroom, removed glass items from the counter, and, when David was calm, they rehearsed the process. “David,” they said, “The next time you get really, really angry, you are going to have your meltdown in this cool-down room. Here is the place where you can yell and scream. To help you cool down, you can also stomp your feet and pound these pillows.” Rachel and Dan then had David stomp his feet, raise his voice, and pound the pillows. “David,” they said, “This room is where you can be really mad, but you’re also keeping the family and household things safe. This room is where you can cool down until it’s safe for you to leave.”
But wouldn’t a cool-down room cause emotional harm?
A day after Rachel and Dan explained the cool-down room to David, David had a HUGE meltdown, but Rachel was too nervous about the new strategy to use it. It made sense in a lot of ways, but she felt bad about isolating David in a room where he couldn’t see her. She thought David would be scared and think she didn’t care about him.
So the meltdowns continued until, one day, Rachel decided she had to at least try it. David was angry and destructive, throwing and trying to break the chairs in the dining room. So Rachel said, “You are throwing chairs. I’m going to put you in the cool-down room until you are calm again.” And she maneuvered David toward the bathroom, put him in, and closed the door.
Later, Rachel wrote to me, telling me how happy was with her and David’s experience. What happened? Is David now meltdown-free? No, of course not! Anyway, meltdowns are OK, remember? Here, the success lay in Rachel’s response to the meltdown. She was quite surprised to find that she did not feel regret and guilt once she closed that bathroom door. Instead, her main experience was an awareness that David actually did feel safer being in a place where he couldn’t hurt anyone. It also felt good to be communicating to David that, since he was in a space specifically designed for meltdowns, the meltdown was OK.
David calmed down in 8 minutes (who’s counting?), and when Rachel went into the room he was no longer in a rage. At that point, he was able to accept comfort from Rachel. They had a hug together in the cool-down room and the day continued on-course. In fact, David was more centered and positive than he had been before the meltdown.
Again, though, for Rachel, Dan and David, their days will include meltdowns, at least for a while. The positive change for this family is not the cessation of meltdowns; rather, the success is that a) the meltdowns are no longer destructive; b) David is learning experientially that it’s not OK to harm others; and c) David is experiencing his parents’ acceptance of his emotional intensity.
These outcomes can be achieved regardless of your child’s age. Older kids may need a punching bag instead of pillows! But the basics remain the same: Make a plan for the child to express anger safely; do this without invalidating the child’s emotional experience; and hold the child accountable to adhere to the plan that’s been developed.
Parents often fear that children will be scared (in the case of younger kids) or feel rejected if they are held accountable to express anger or destructive impulses in a place that is away from the rest of the family. But kids who have huge meltdowns need to have those meltdowns, and giving them the space to do that is one key support parents can provide. Requiring them to be away from the person they are hurting also communicates support and safety.
(I did feel it was important to make an exception to this approach one time, when I was working with a child whose father had recently died. For this child, forced disengagement from Mom was really scary – he thought he would lose her, too. But most of the kids I work with tell me that they feel good knowing there is a way for them to express their anger and get themselves under control without hurting the people they love.)
These kids don’t want to hurt others. Holding them accountable to express anger safely teaches respect for others’ boundaries; it develops self-control; and it also builds self-esteem!