Ask a Therapist: Want to Help Your Frustrated Kids Survive This Hell Year? Try Encouraging Their Meltdowns

by Liz Covey, LMHC

Question: Help! Lazy monsters have taken over my house! In other words, my kids aren’t doing so good. All they ever want to do is play video games or watch YouTube. When I ask them to do something like a chore, or even their homework, they bite my head off. What can we do to make it through this long winter?

Dear Reader,

I can practically hear the collective moan of parents everywhere as I read your question. Now that we’ve been at this pandemic thing for a while, we’ve found something of a groove. But for all of the ways we’ve grown hardy in these strange times, there is also an equal and opposite reality at play: the fatigue and frustration of long-term restrictions that come with this unprecedented way of life. This is especially true for our kids who are not built to thrive in conditions of limitations, but rather are equipped to take everything in, dilating their apertures to the world as much as they can in order to (eventually) find their focus within it. Young people gulp where elders merely sip. It’s meant to be this way. Only today, it can’t be.

We are now in the middle of another shutdown, one that is likely to hurt more, coming as it does after months of built-up fatigue already in our systems. Add to that the most trying season in which to cope with these confines — the cold, dark, and wet months of the long Seattle winter.

So, Reader, my advice to you at this moment is simple, if counterintuitive, and it is meant to take the existing fatigue and frustration into account, along with what we know in my field about the theory of emotions. It is this: Make time for your kids to melt down.  

What I am suggesting is that we play an active role in inviting our children to experience their  feelings to the fullest extent they can from time to time. Even negative ones. (Especially negative ones.) We do this both for the sake of meeting their need for emotional processing but also for the sake of family harmony. With our help, kids can put their bad mood, their overreaction, or their terrible circumstances on full blast as a means of “digesting” the hardships of this challenging year. Their ability to “let it out” now and then might be the very thing that keeps us all from having some serious long-term consequences to this barely bearable year.

But as with all things, we have to think first of safety.

In order to make space for disruptive emotions, we have to be prepared to keep everyone (including pets and property) safe. This usually means being at home, having some privacy, and feeling up for it. Which is to say, you might choose to do this at a time when you have a little bit of compassion for your child’s need to be heard in their tough feelings. It also helps to be in a setting that isn’t precious (think kid’s bedroom or the rec room in the basement, not next to the china cabinet). The main idea is to go with the flow of big and unpleasant emotions and reactions for the purpose of necessary release and, afterward, restoration. 

A good metaphor here might be the “controlled burn” in forestry, whereby smaller fires are intentionally started in certain high-risk areas as a means of mitigating the possibility of larger, more destructive ones. These fires help to eliminate accumulated dead matter and debris, making more space (and sunlight) for young trees and plants to take root and become established in a forest. In fact, certain plants, such as various pine species, need a burn to melt the resin that contains the seed pod in order for that plant to propagate. Like a forest, we humans need to experience the full range of emotions now and again to grow to our full potential and to maintain health in our personal ecosystems.

So what does allowing a safe meltdown look like in real life? 

That can vary a lot from kid to kid. It might mean that in a time of upset, you don’t try to calm down (or punish) your child or teen, but rather encourage them to throw a nerf ball at a wall or a benign target. Or maybe you offer them a pillow to scream into or a newspaper to tear to shreds. Or suggest running around the room or wrestle on the ground to let off steam together. It could mean inviting them to pound fists into the couch cushion, bed, or bop bag. Or you allow them to speak bad words freely — words of displeasure, words of hate. Even curse words if you can stomach it (for older kids).

Sometimes the spewing of rage or malcontent toward hard things — even toward a person with whom they have conflict — is just what someone needs to feel better. We as adults know that feelings are just that, and that we don’t have to act on them. But neither are we helped by stuffing them down or forever carrying them around, unexpressed. For many of us, the greatest relief is had by sharing our strong feelings with a caring other. This is even more true for children, who genuinely need their pain and hard times to be witnessed by their caregivers. And who need to be loved in the midst of their crises.

As you do this with your child or teen, stay close. Lend empathy. Watch your child’s cues. And don’t temper them in the moment or get too attached to the words they are saying. Instead, pay attention to the feelings they are expressing, and learn to ride the wave like an emotional surf. It will rise — let it, so long as there is safety. Sometimes we are the target of the harsh words. Don’t fight back, just listen (though I am not advocating for permitting any kind of violence; should that occur, you would aim to redirect the action toward a soft object, like a fist to the bed, not toward you). Eventually it will crest, and afterward the waters will be calmer. It might take a few waves, so be prepared, and be patient.

This advice may sound peculiar. But rest assured, it is grounded in the neurobiology of emotions and in what we know about how intricately negative circumstances correlate to psychological conditions. It is for this reason that I recommend helping elicit your child’s meltdown this year. For although it will probably be incredibly inconvenient and come at the worst possible time, and even though sometimes it will be hard to take, it is, in the end, essential. It is a way to help trauma-proof our kids from the potential harmful effects of this year. It is the “controlled burn” of family life right now.

So, go forth, Reader, armed with pillows, bedding, paper, and a tough constitution. Ready to be there for your kid by the mere act of giving them room to feel. And by not restricting them further by placing unrealistic limitations on what those feelings should be.

With a little more room for upset, you might just find the calm you seek this winter.

(Please note: Children with behaviors that are violent, frightening, or suicidal should be in the care of mental health professionals. The above advice is meant for the average mood states in children, which themselves can be wide-ranging. Anything in the more severe range should be monitored by mental health and medical professionals as well. L.C.)

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

Featured image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. View a copy of this license here.

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