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How to help your teenager deal with a meltdown

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Teenagers can experience a lot of emotions, which can be difficult to manage. We talked to Dr. Lisa Damour, an expert adolescent psychologist and regular contributor to the New York Times about how parents can help their children navigate difficult feelings.

These guidelines will help most parents navigate these difficult situations. However, some tantrums and emotional outbursts can be associated with developmental disorders such as delayed language skills or hearing or vision problems or behavioral problems. A child or adolescent professional may be able to provide more specific support. If your child is experiencing strong emotions, please consult a specialist.

What is a meltdown?

Meltdowns may occur in younger or older children. When a child becomes overwhelmed by emotion, this is called a meltdown. This could include anger, fear, frustration, or any other emotion.

What is a meltdown in older children?

Children who are able to express their feelings can become overwhelmed and may sob, cry, or even storm around. Because they are embarrassed, older children are less likely have meltdowns at public places. Home meltdowns are more common. A teen might be able to keep it together at school, but then go home and have an emotional outburst.

What can I do if my teenager has an emotional outburst

These are the nine steps Dr. Damour suggests parents take to help their teenagers manage a meltdown. To test if the steps are working, pause between them. If it doesn’t, go on to the next step.

  1. Listen to what you are saying, without interrupting

An older child may experience an emotional outburst, where they talk in distress about something. It is important to allow them to speak their mind. Many adults, even the most well-intentioned, will jump in to make suggestions or offer advice, forgetting that emotions can be a source for relief.

  1. Offer sincere empathy

A lot of young people find that expressing their emotions in words is enough to provide them with the relief they need. We can help our teens by listening attentively and offering empathy. Adults might try to say something like “That’s horrible” or “I’m sorry that happened.”

  1. Validate distress

Teenagers especially appreciate validation. Teenagers worry that something is wrong with their feelings, as their emotions can be so strong. Teenagers can feel very upset at times, but there is often another side to the story that is just as worried about how powerful teenage emotions are.

Adults saying, “Your feelings are normal and I understand why you feel that way” is a great comfort for teenagers. Teenagers feel worse than they do. But they also feel guilty. So, changing a teenager’s perspective is not always as easy as parents would like.

  1. Help with coping

These three steps should be sufficient to help your child most of the time. If these don’t provide enough relief, we can help teens control their emotions and express their feelings. Helping teens to feel better is one way. Talk to your teenager about positive things that they can do to feel better, such as slowing down and deepening their breathing.

Abdominal breathing can be very relaxing and help us draw oxygen deeper into our lungs. This is a simple three-step process.

Place your hand on the stomach Five deep, slow breaths. Take five seconds to breathe in, and then 5 seconds to breathe out. Breathe in through your nose, and out through the mouth.

Explain to your child that their stomach is expanding softly when they inhale, just like a balloon. When they exhale, the balloon expands slowly again.

  1. Be confident and non-dismissive

You can show your support by saying, “This is hard, but this strong feeling won’t last very long” or, “As difficult as this feels right now. I’m so impressed at what you can manage and that this and we can talk about this.”

  1. Help solve problems

If your teen still feels upset after you have validated their feelings and offered comfort, you can ask them for help. Sometimes teens will just want to vent, and it is okay to listen. If they answer yes, they are more open to our wisdom.

  1. Divide the problem into 2 buckets

It can be helpful for your child to accept your help in problem solving if they are willing to share their challenges with you.

  1. You can change the things you don’t like. So brainstorm solutions.

Encourage them to put their focus on the solutions that will make a difference.

  1. Acceptance is the only way to change what can’t be changed

Encourage your teen to do what they can in order to accept difficult problems. Talking about how much energy they have can help young people accept the problem. To help them accept the fact that they only have so much energy you could tell them “You only have so many problems, so keep it for those where we can do something.” You don’t have to waste your energy on problems you can’t solve right now.

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