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How to talk to your child after a tantrum or meltdown

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Talking to your child after a tantrum or meltdown can help you find out what caused the outburst. But timing is crucial. Try to talk too soon, and you may rev up big emotions. Wait too long, and your child may lose track of key details that can help you figure out what triggered the outburst.

Watch or listen to this six-minute episode of “What Now? A Parent’s Guide,” where psychologist Dr. Andrew Kahn teaches you how to know when your child is ready to talk and how to start the conversation. Get expert tips including the best open-ended questions to ask after your child has a tantrum or meltdown.

Timestamps

  • (0:41) Why timing is really important 

  • (2:16) How to know when your child is ready to talk 

  • (3:44) How to start the conversation 

  • (4:55) What you can practice ahead of time 

Related resources

  • Feelings wheel, a one-page printable with pictures and words to help kids talk about their emotions

  • Wunder by Understood, a free app with exercises that can help you manage your child’s outbursts, track your progress, and get personalized tips along the way

Episode transcript

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns."

I'm Dr. Andrew Kahn. I'm a licensed psychologist who has been working with kids, teens, and adults for more than 20 years. I'm also the father of a teenager, so I have a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to parenting. I'll be your host.

Today's episode explains how to talk to your child after a tantrum or meltdown. There are two key parts: 

  • Knowing when your child is ready to talk, and

  • Asking open-ended questions to help your child express themselves

Let's get started.

(0:41) Why timing is really important

So, let's talk about why timing is really important.

Talking to your child after a tantrum or meltdown can help you do a variety of things:

  • Figure out what caused the outburst 

  • Teach them to label and talk about their emotions

  • Learn better ways to regulate their emotions when they have big feelings

  • And, lastly, try to keep it from happening again or reduce the intensity and frequency of that behavior

But your child may be feeling a lot of emotions, including being embarrassed or ashamed.

So, finding the right time to talk about what happened is super important. If you try to have this conversation too soon, your child may shut down completely or restart the reaction all over again. If you wait too long, your child may lose track of what was happening when the tantrum occurred, and they will likely want as much space from the event or topics as possible. 

So, it's just as important to know when to start the conversation as knowing what to say.

In my daily work, it's always a balancing act helping parents and kids break down why their tantrums and meltdowns happen. During a recent session, a 12-year-old client of mine had a meltdown right in front of me. The outburst was relatively short. But the parents put tremendous pressure on the child to share what had happened, and those demands caused a second meltdown in my office. 

I could completely understand the parents' anxiety about wanting to know what happened as soon as possible, but the pressure proved too great and their requests ultimately made things worse. This is a really common problem for parents, myself included. 

Remember: Try not to rush your child. A little extra time can go a long way.

(2:16) How to know when your child is ready to talk

OK, so let's talk about how to know when your child is ready to talk. There are some simple signs you can look for to see if your child is ready or needs more time to calm down.

Calmly ask, in a voice without anger or judgment: "Are you ready to talk?"

Look for signs that your child may be too worked up to talk, like are they screaming or yelling?

Are they pacing back and forth? Are they showing tense body language, like a clenched jaw or hands balled into fists? Are they showing disrespectful behavior?

You see, it's OK to show some emotion, and both you and your child are human, so be kind to yourself. 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, with your help, learn how to regulate them and have a better ability to share what they feel.

If your child doesn't appear ready or you start talking and it becomes clear that they aren't ready because they're screaming or being disrespectful, calmly say: "It looks like you need a bit more time. I'll come to check on you again in another five minutes."

If your child appears ready to talk, set the expectation for them that being ready to talk means talking in a calm voice and being respectful towards one another.

And one last thing: Sometimes our kids just refuse to talk about what happened or how they feel. As a parent, it's OK to encourage your child even when they're not 100% ready or motivated to talk.

(3:44) How to start the conversation

Let's talk about how to start the conversation.

First, start with open-ended questions, like:  

  • "How are you feeling?" 

  • "Is there a problem you need help solving?"

  • "Is there something else you want to share with me that maybe I don't know?" 

It's really important to remember that sometimes your child may just want you to listen rather than solve a problem.

If your child struggles to answer open-ended questions, give them some options, like: "It seems like you're feeling angry. Is that right? What made you feel so angry?"

It's very common for kids to have trouble communicating, especially when they're having big feelings. You can help your child identify or label their feelings. Remind yourself and your child that a feeling is never bad or wrong.

Stick with non-judgmental language, and remind your child that it's their behavior you dislike and not them.

One thing I want to mention is be prepared for a whole lot of "I don't knows." Give your child time to answer your questions. Sometimes kids will have a clear answer. Sometimes they may not know what caused the outburst. So, calmly say, "I'm here if you want to talk more about this later." 

Remember: Try not to rush your child. 

(4:55) What you can practice ahead of time

OK, let's talk about what you can practice ahead of time.

When your child is calm, ask them how they're feeling and why. During these calm moments, take a few minutes to help your child look inward and label whatever they're noticing. Being intentional in this process can make your child more aware of their body and their feelings.

Practicing talking about feelings in these calm situations may make it easier to talk about feelings when emotions are running high. Try to do this three times this week.

To help with this, you may want to use Understood's feelings wheel. It's a one-page resource that uses pictures and words to help kids name their emotions. I'll put a link in the show notes.

OK, folks, that's it for today's episode. 

I hope you'll join me for the next episode on how to prevent tantrums with proactive praise.

If there's one thing you can take away from this episode: Remember, talking to your child after a meltdown or tantrum can be challenging. So look for signs they're ready to talk and don't rush them. That's the key. 

You've been listening to "What Now? A Parent's Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns," from the Understood Podcast Network.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. 

We include more resources, as well as links to anything we've mentioned in this episode.

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.


What Now? A Parent’s Guide to Tantrums and Meltdowns is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. 

Host

  • Andrew Kahn, PsyD

    is a licensed psychologist who focuses on ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, behavior challenges, executive function, and emotional regulation.

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