Coping with Meltdowns: DBT in Action

Parenting isn’t always the rosy picture we see portrayed on social media. Most parents struggle sometimes or often, and one of the significant triggers for their distress, especially when their children are young, is meltdowns. Meltdowns, or tantrums, are emotional storms that take their toll on anyone present. And while we can’t really prevent these episodes – meltdowns are a normal part of child development – we can mitigate their impact through the use of a number of DBT skills.

When meltdowns strike, first regulate your own mind and body. This comes first for a reason. If you are dysregulated, if you are panicking or your emotional temperature is so high that you’re nearing out of control, you can’t be a soothing presence for your child.

A dysregulated adult cannot help a dysregulated child.

So you have to take care of yourself first (even – and especially – if your child is screaming their head off in your presence). So first things first, figure out what you need. Do you need a few deep breaths? A time-out? Would it help to acknowledge to yourself how difficult or frustrating this experience is? Or to remind yourself, “This too shall pass”? Figure out what you need, within the realm of possibility. Parenting with DBT involves figuring out what skills to use in difficult situations. This might be a good opportunity for you to use the DBT STOP skill, a skill from the distress tolerance module. Here, we literally freeze, take a step back, assess what is happening, and then choose mindful action. Sometimes, this pause is enough for us to ensure we don’t act in a way to make the situation worse.

Next, allow your child to have their feelings. Be present but take a back seat. You can narrate what seems to be happening. “Frankie’s really upset,” or “This is really hard for you.” You can offer a hug or just your presence.

What’s important here is that while you are present and attentive and validating, you are not making this a teaching moment.

Once your child has calmed down, you can try to approach them with some problem-solving. Again, narrate what happened. “When I told you we had to leave the park, you got really upset. It’s hard for you to leave the park when you’re having a good time. How can we make this easier for next time?” (assuming this kind of problem-solving is age-appropriate) And then be sure to reference your agreed-upon game plan when approaching a similar situation. Predict what might be challenging scenarios and use what we call “Cope Ahead” in DBT to figure out how to manage potential difficulties.

Finally, evaluate what worked and what could use some tweaking. Parenting with DBT involves becoming a researcher of your own experience. Use meltdowns for some data collection. What worked? What didn’t? For instance, you might want to take a look at your own vulnerability to intense emotions using the DBT PLEASE skills, intended to help regulate our emotions by regulating our bodies. If you’re hungry or tired, for instance, you’re probably going to have a bigger reaction when your kid is in the midst of a meltdown. Maybe one of your adjustments means making sure, to the best of your ability, that you’re fed and rested. Make some mental notes for how you might do things differently the next time a meltdown occurs.

And last but not least, seek out support. Parenting is challenging, physically and emotionally. Here, you might rely on the DBT interpersonal effectiveness skills regarding asking for help and finding friends/community that can offer support. Perhaps you can rely on a partner – that’s great. Are there others in your life who can step in to give you a break? Maybe you’re part of (or can find) a parenting group, filled with like-minded individuals who “get it.”Seek out others who can offer support and validation. Even just knowing that you’re not alone can reduce the stress associated with an experience. And professional help might be warranted too. Individual therapy, especially that which is skills based, can help you cope with the many stressors involved in child-rearing and can help you parent more effectively.

In sum, meltdowns might be unavoidable, but parenting with DBT can help us weather these emotional storms more gracefully, ultimately reducing their frequency, intensity, and duration. Regulating yourself, validating your child, problem-solving, evaluating/learning, and seeking out help and support are all important steps that can help us navigate these intense emotional waves.

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