How to help your teenager manage a meltdown
Be your child’s partner in navigating difficult or overwhelming feelings
Being a teenager comes with a lot of big emotions – and they can sometimes be tough to handle. We spoke with expert adolescent psychologist, best-selling author, regular New York Times contributor and mother of two Dr. Lisa Damour about how parents can support their children in navigating difficult or strong feelings.
Note: This general guidance will support most parents in these difficult situations, but some tantrums or emotional outbursts are associated with developmental disorders, such as delayed language skills, hearing or vision difficulties or behavioral issues, which may need more focused support with the aid of a child or adolescent professional. Please reach out to a specialist if you are worried your child’s strong emotions might be an indication of something deeper.
What is a meltdown?
Meltdowns can happen in both younger and older children. This is when a child is completely overtaken by emotion and becomes overwhelmed. These emotions could be fear, anger, frustration or something else.
What does a meltdown look like in older children?
When children who have the capacity to describe what they're feeling become overwhelmed, they may start sobbing, hyperventilating or storming around. Older children are less likely to have meltdowns in public places because they themselves are embarrassed. Meltdowns are much more likely to happen at home. For example, a teen may hold it together all day at school and then come home and have an emotional outburst.
What should I do if my teen has an emotional outburst?
Here are nine practical steps Dr. Damour recommends parents try out to help their teens manage a meltdown. Pause between each step to see if it’s worked. If not, move forward to the next step.
1. Listen without interrupting
Older children may have an emotional outburst that involves talking in a very distressed way about whatever is wrong. At these times, the key is to let them just say it all. So often, well-meaning adults jump in or make suggestions, forgetting that expressing emotions is in and of itself a source of relief.
2. Offer sincere empathy
Most of the time expressing emotions in words provides all the relief a young person needs. After listening carefully, we can further support our teens by simply offering empathy. Adults can try saying something like “that’s terrible” or “I’m so sorry that happened.”
3. Validate distress
Validation is very effective, especially for teenagers. Teens sometimes worry that there's something wrong with their feelings because their emotions can be so powerful. While there's the part of the teenager that's very upset, there's often another part of the teenager that is a little freaked out by how powerful teen emotions can be.
It’s a huge comfort to teenagers when adults say: “Your feelings make sense and I can understand why you're having that reaction.” If, instead, adults say: “Why are you so upset about that? There are people who suffer much more than you do, right?”, the net effect for teenagers is that they still feel lousy, but now they feel guilty as well. In other words, trying to change a teen’s perspective doesn't always offer the help that parents hope it will.
4. Support coping
Most of the time, these first three steps will be enough to help your child. But if those don’t bring sufficient relief, we can shift away from helping teens express their feelings toward helping them bring their emotions back under control. One way to do this is to help teens comfort themselves. Talk with your teen about productive things they can do to help themselves feel better such as making a point of breathing deeply and slowly.
Abdominal breathing is very calming and helps us to draw oxygen deep into our lungs. Here’s an easy three-step process:
- Place your hand on your stomach
- Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in and 5 seconds breathing out, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Explain that when your child inhales, they are blowing up their abdomen softly like a balloon, and when they exhale the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.
5. Express non-dismissive confidence
Try showing your support by saying things like, “this is tough, but this strong feeling will not last very long” or “as hard as this feels right now, I’m so impressed by what you are able to manage and that we can share this and talk together.”
6. Offer to help problem-solve
If you have listened and validated and offered comfort and your teen is still upset, the next step can be to say “do you need help trying to solve this problem?” Asking for permission to offer support, as opposed to just offering advice, can help keep the conversation going with a teen. Sometimes teenagers will say “No, I just want to vent,” and you can feel confident that listening offers as much support as they need. And if they say yes, they tend to be a lot more receptive to our wisdom.
7. Divide the problem into two buckets
If your child accepts your help with problem solving then it can be useful to divide the challenges they're facing into two categories: Things that can change and things that cannot change.
8. For the things that can be changed, brainstorm possible solutions
Help them focus their attention on finding solutions to the problems where they can make meaningful changes.
9. For what cannot be changed, support acceptance
Support your teen in doing what they can to accept the problems that are not easily solved. One way to help young people with acceptance is to talk about it in terms of how much energy they have. You could say to them, “You only have so much energy, so save it for the problems where we can really do something. Don’t waste it on the challenges that you can’t control right now.”
Have a teenager at home? Read more advice from Dr. Lisa Damour.