Talking to your child after a tantrum or meltdown can help you find out what caused the outburst. But if you try to talk too soon, your child might get upset again. And if you wait too long, your child might forget what happened.
Knowing when to talk is just as important as knowing what to say after a tantrum or outburst. Your child may be feeling a lot of emotions, including being embarrassed or ashamed. That can make it hard to talk.
Use these tips to help you know when your child is ready to talk and what you can say to help your child express themselves.
1. Look for signs your child is ready to talk.
First, you can calmly ask, in a voice without anger or judgment: “Are you ready to talk?”
You can also look for signs that your child may be too worked up to talk:
- Screaming or yelling
- Pacing back and forth
- Tense body language, like a clenched jaw or hands balled into fists
- Disrespectful behavior
It’s OK if your child is showing some emotion. Crying or being a bit withdrawn doesn’t always mean your child isn’t ready to talk. The goal isn’t for them to show no emotion at all.
The goal is for your child to work on understanding that they can have big emotions. And that, with your help, they can learn how to regulate them and get better at sharing what they feel.
2. Set a check-in time if your child isn’t ready.
If your child doesn’t seem ready to talk, calmly say: “It looks like you need a bit more time. I’ll come to check on you in five minutes.”
It’s really important to tell your child when you’ll check in with them again. This can help kids use the time apart to calm down instead of worrying about being abandoned.
3. Be clear on rules for talking calmly.
When your child seems ready to talk, remind them that being ready to talk means talking in a calm voice and being respectful.
Kids don’t always know or remember what adults expect. Being specific can help your child know how to meet your expectations.
4. Start with open-ended questions.
Start with open-ended questions, like:
- “How are you feeling?”
- “Is there a problem you need help solving?”
- “Is there something you want to share with me that maybe I don’t know?”
Remember, though, that sometimes your child may just want you to listen rather than solve a problem.
If your child struggles to answer, give them some other options. For example, “It seems like you’re feeling really angry. Is that right? What made you feel so angry?”
5. Help your child identify their feelings.
It’s common for kids to have trouble communicating, especially when they’re having big feelings. You can help your child identify or label their feelings.
You may want to use a one-page resource that uses pictures and words to help kids name their emotions. This free tool is called a feelings wheel.
Remind yourself and your child that a feeling is never bad or wrong. Stick with non-judgmental language. Remind your child that it’s their behavior you dislike — not them.
6. Be prepared for “I don’t know.”
Give your child time to answer your questions. And be prepared for a whole lot of “I don’t know.”
Sometimes kids will have a clear answer. But sometimes they may not know what caused the outburst. Or they may just refuse to talk about what happened or how they feel.
You can calmly say, “I’m here if you want to talk about this later.”
Learn more about how to help your child manage big feelings on Season 1 of our podcast, What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns.
About the author
About the author
Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.