For Dora, it was yet another meltdown morning. She skulked into my office, treating it like a confessional, and reviewed the school scene that just happened with Sammy, her 7-year-old. He dawdled through getting dressed, and then things went from bad to worse when he screamed about his seat belt, threatened to throw up and refused to go into his classroom. She shared how her exasperation and efforts to cajole him intensified his meltdown. Dora said this was business as usual.
Highly sensitive children have an inborn temperament that renders them reactive to internal and external experiences. These children are called “anxious,” “difficult,” “easily distressed,” “explosive” and “highly emotional.” Parents often find them rigid and inflexible. They usually have a tough time with transitions, unfamiliar circumstances, new activities and even mild stressors. They can’t help it. But what’s a parent to do?
Imagine a scale, a “distress-o-meter” of 1 to 10. What stresses the average child (like becoming physically uncomfortable, excluded, frustrated with a task) and registers on the meter as the orange zone of 6 or 7 is experienced by your child as an 8, 9 or 10 which is the red zone. Your child will be hysterical, irrational, screaming, resistive and absolutely out of control. Getting mad at the child in the red zone is like throwing grease on a fire. Better to be in the green, cool zone yourself.
Routine expectations for a child (like bedtime, going to school, team sports) may seem to you like they should be mild stressors, but they can be experienced as major ones for anxious children. You might judge that these things shouldn’t throw your child’s emotional throttle to the red zone, but it won’t help him learn self calming. Only lots of cognitive and emotional re-training will do so. And don’t be quick to think that this is just a therapist’s job, because if the child goes home to their most intimate, loving attachment figures (parents) who are angry, exasperated and judgmental the child’s brain will be in too much of a chronic firestorm to learn coping and calming techniques.
In brain terms, when your child is having a meltdown, he is having an “amygdala hijack.” The emotional part of his brain is reacting to a stressor as if it were a predator, which triggers a “fight, flight, freeze” reaction. Parents of these children need to develop skills in calming themselves so that they can help their children learn to calm themselves. In an airplane emergency, the oxygen bag needs to first go to the parent so that she can then optimally help her child.
What did Dora do with her son’s meltdown at school? Dora was reasonable, but classically ineffective. She reassured him and told him there was “nothing to be afraid of,” that he was “not really sick, just nervous” and to “just calm down.” She reminded him that he was going to be late for school and that he’d feel better if he would just “get going” with the school day. He screamed louder.
Rational and intelligent parents can easily fall into the trap of doing all the wrong things with riled up kids. Dora’s reassurance is remarkable in how typical it is and how spectacularly it can fail to help accomplish the goals of calming the child and inspiring compliance. Whether the anxiety is triggered by a birthday party, soccer practice or homework, fear is in the mind of the beholder and is not something to be argued during a meltdown.
Parents should be quiet and think very carefully about what they say and transmit emotionally to their sensitive children.
Dora needs to do what clinical psychologists are taught to do in emergency situations: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, first “do no harm,” which means parents should be quiet and think very carefully about what they say and transmit emotionally to their sensitive children. An exasperated parental tone or edge in the voice can take a child from a state of anxious worry to screaming hysteria.
Neuro-imaging research has documented what we’ve always known intuitively — that when one person’s brain spikes in anxiety and distress, the one nearby activates in tandem. Kids know what their parents are feeling about them. Sensitive children can detect even mildly negative feelings, and their meltdowns can spiral downward if their parents are thinking, “Oh, no, here she goes again,” “I don’t have time for this ridiculousness” and “Why can’t she be like other children?”
Yes, it’s true. Anxious children do better with Zen Buddhists as parents. In the meantime, the rest of us should try to achieve as calm an emotional state as possible when responding to extremely anxious children. Here are more helpful guidelines:
Validate your child’s feelings — Remember that empathy doesn’t mean agreement. During a meltdown, your child will have an elevated heart rate, seem irrational and inconsolable and become “flooded” with stress hormones (which trigger headaches and stomach aches for real!). The greatest challenge for the parent is that the child will identify the problem as the feared thing, not the core emotional problem, which is the anxiety state.
This explains why parents can so easily become dismissive, which results in the child ratcheting up the screaming to make it clear to you how upset she is. Instead of saying “You love school. You’re just having a tizzy this morning,” you say, “You don’t want to go to school today. Your tummy hurts and it feels like it’s the worst day of your life.” You can paraphrase a bit to link your child’s statements with “right now” and “you feel” so that you aren’t agreeing with the declarations.
Stay patient and understanding about what your child is experiencing — Say to yourself: “She’s doing the best she can, given her emotional state. She can’t help that she has such a sensitive temperament. She came by this temperament as innocently as other kids their asthma or diabetes.” Compassion will result in a quicker resolution to your child’s outburst, even though it will always take longer than you wish.
Listen and repeat — While you sit quietly and listen to your child, try just repeating what he is saying to you. Don’t argue. Tell him that you are listening carefully. Speak slowly and very quietly.
Anxiety is like gravity — what goes up, must come down. In other words, your child’s panic will rise but always abate. The parent’s goal needs to be “damage control,” meaning not making it worse by arguing, criticizing or even talking too much because any stimulation at all can keep your child flooding or ramping up for another peak. Often, less is more, when it comes to a parent’s response to a child’s intense emotions.
You're not spoiling your child — Reassure yourself that this approach is not “spoiling” or “indulging” your child, but instead that it is treating the condition of high anxiety. Although it may feel to you that it takes too much time or that you are reinforcing bad behavior, recall that your other punitive approaches haven’t worked.
Remember the old adage, “The only person you can control is you” — Since you are probably upset that your child is upset, role model your own “self-calming” and do a breathing exercise. Breathe in slowly over five seconds and exhale slowly over the next five seconds. Use a second hand on your watch and get absorbed in the deep belly breaths. As you become focused on your own self-calming skills, your child may decide to join in. The other advantages of an explicit focus on self control is role-modeling and the fact that it directs you to avoid being coercive with your child.
Consider distraction — If your child’s emotional distress is on the wane from the red zone (8 to 10) to the orange zone (6-7), distraction may help her calm down further. Perhaps you can share a childhood story about when you needed to use a technique like deep breathing or positive self-talk to calm yourself. Since shame can so easily be associated with meltdowns, your personal vignette might also convey the humble truth that everyone needs to work on self-calming some time.
All people benefit from this self-calming skill, also known as “emotional regulation.” It’s one of the cornerstone features of emotional intelligence. We named our book Getting to Calm since most parents of teens need to work on self-calming to handle the hot button issues of adolescence. But parents of young children with sensitive and anxious temperaments find that they need to become super-skilled in patience and calming early in child-rearing. Like so many aspects of parenting, the children model, internalize and learn emotional regulation from us.
This article was originally published in June 2018, and updated in June 2019.