When your otherwise rational child suddenly turns into a sobbing puddle on the floor because she got marker on her shirt or he left his math folder at school, it's easy to become overwhelmed and rattled yourself.
“She’s letting you know how helpless she feels by making you feel just as helpless,” explains clinical psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author of the new book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.
Negative emotions are healthy. In fact, they provide important feedback about the choices we make: Just as the pain of touching a hot stove lets us know to pull our hand away, feeling hurt by another person or upset about a choice helps us learn from those experiences, Dr. Damour says.
But when your child gets overwhelmed by her feelings, she’s not thinking very clearly and it’s impossible for her to have a reasonable discussion. You want to stop the screaming, but you also want her to learn to calm herself down. The best way to help teach her that essential life skill? Get crafty.
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Pour a thin layer of glitter into the bottom of a clear jar, fill the jar with water, and seal the lid with glue. When you shake it like a snow globe, the glitter swirls like a blizzard and eventually settles at the bottom of the jar. (Adding some glitter glue along with the glitter will help prolong this effect.)
It’s a great metaphor for a meltdown: When your child becomes swamped by negative feelings (perhaps because she was already tired, hungry, or frustrated about something), her supercharged emotions hijack her neurological system, unleashing a blinding glitter storm. Even if her feelings are overblown or irrational, they are very real to her.
During a calm moment, show the glitter jar to your kid and shake it up. You might say, “This is like what happens inside people’s minds when they get upset. The clear water represents how we feel when we’re peaceful or happy, and the glitter represents our uncomfortable emotions. When something goes wrong, it can seem like someone shook our mental glitter jar and stirred up a bunch of awful feelings. We need to find a way for the glitter to settle down so we can get back to having good feelings again.”
Most kids are mesmerized by watching the glitter settle—and you should stand by quietly as your child tunes in to what it feels like to become relaxed.
When your child has a meltdown, it can be hard not to jump in with reassurance or questions. Instead, take out the glitter jar, shake it, and watch it together. Showing your child that her reaction doesn’t faze you lets her know that she doesn’t have to be afraid of her emotions either. You could also say, “While the glitter falls, let’s take in big slow breaths to help calm our minds and bodies.”
In the same way that adults meditate, she can use the glitter jar when she gets overwhelmed in order to remind herself that she can feel in control again. Afterward, she’ll either have an easier time dealing with her problem or realize that it isn’t so bad after all, says Dr. Damour.
Over time, your child will likely start shaking the glitter jar herself when she feels agitated. Even if she freaks out away from home, you can say, “Can you picture our glitter jar? Take a minute to relax so you don’t go on to feel worse than you do now.”