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How to Avoid Emotional Meltdown in Children

All you need is love-John Lennon

What do you do when your child has an emotional meltdown?
It can be an unsettling and uncomfortable experience, especially if it happens in public. A little while ago, my granddaughter, Mollie Moo aged 3, wanted a lolly from the supermarket freezer. She wanted a particular brand of lolly, which I knew they didn’t have. Still, I thought, a lolly is a lolly and, if she’s feeling a bit hot, any lolly will be welcome.
How wrong I was.
As I tentatively unwrapped it for her at the checkout, her face dropped and she threw herself to the ground, howling in anguish. ’Waaaaaah!’
‘What’s wrong, Mollie?’ I asked. ‘Don’t you want the lolly?’
By now she was out of breath and could barely speak. Between gasps for air, she finally managed to mouth the words…
‘Noooooo……’s the……..wrong colour!’
I kept calmer than most. I knew what was going on.
It was an emotional hijack of volcanic proportions, totally out of sync with the crisis which presented itself. But in that moment, to Mollie Moo, it felt like everything in her tiny world had gone wrong and nothing would put it right apart from the correct colour lolly.

The emotionally immature brain

The brain has two hemispheres.

Very simplistically described, the left hemisphere is rational and the right is the older emotional brain and, here’s the key, the two hemispheres don’t work optimally at the same time. When we are calm, the rational brain is in control and the emotional brain is settled.

But, when we get emotional, the emotional hemisphere begins to elevate (this can happen very fast) and switches off rational thought. The real problem is, the emotional brain only sees things in a very all or nothing way so now, everything is wrong, nothing is right and it’s never going to get better. That’s how it felt to Mollie Moo when the wrong lolly showed up and her reaction was typical of an underdeveloped brain.

You see, the corpus callosum, the bridge between the brain hemispheres which allows good communication between emotion and rational thought does not fully develop until adulthood so emotional intelligence will be a challenge to Mollie until she finally learns how to respond rather than react to the outside world. But, with good education, through experience, managing relationships, observing adult role models and learning the boundaries at school, she will get better at what I call ‘mind management.’

Sadly some children never learn these skills and move into the adult world poorly armed to deal with it in a calm and rational way.

Angry feelings and aggressive behaviour in an older child or teen can be very hard to deal with and can have a big effect on family life. Parents, and siblings can feel they are ‘walking on eggshells’ trying not to trigger an angry outburst.  Teachers can even end up feeling scared for their own safety.

How much better to begin to teach children to manage their emotions early in life? There are many ways but, primarily, it’s about getting them to understand how their brain works, why emotional hijacks happen and what they can do to prevent it.

Psycho-educational, interactive colouring

If there’s one simple activity that helps children to develop both cognitively and emotionally, it’s colouring. They love it and there are so many reasons to encourage them to do it, especially when working on emotional intelligence.

Colouring develops motor skills, stimulates the creative brain, improves hand writing and hand eye co-ordination, fosters improves focus and task completion, confidence, self esteem and self expression.

But the big news is it’s both calming and therapeutic as an outlet for the often overwhelming and confusing range of human emotions. All children will benefit from learning how to process their feelings, frustrations and emotions though the interactive process of colouring whilst talking, listening, learning and reflecting.

Stress management

Colouring offers a short cut as it is so absorbing. When we colour, we have to engage both hemispheres of the brain; the logical left hemisphere which deals with fine motor skills and focused attention, and the right hemisphere which communicates and learns through colour, shape, imagery, art and emotion.

This kind of bilateral stimulation is known to soothe the central nervous system; in particular the area known as the amygdala, which means the brain waves generated by the act of colouring, can soothe both mind and body.

Emotional regulation

Self-soothing is a skill many of us still have difficulties with as adults. It’s important to learn as early as possible how to regulate emotions internally, rather than start using drugs, alcohol or potentially damaging addictive behaviours to calm or numb our uncomfortable feelings. Like mindfulness meditation, when we focus our attention on colouring, we detach from external and internal stimuli, allowing the mind, heart rate and brain chatter to settle.

When children focus on colouring, alpha and theta brain waves are present. Alpha waves are associated with relaxation and theta waves with accelerated learning. This makes colouring a unique opportunity to absorb new knowledge and information at a very deep level.

Interactive, psycho educational colouring involves using this open mind state as a short cut to learning. Whilst calm and focused, talking and interacting with a child creates a unique window for learning some key skills for managing emotion.

Children learn best through stories, so it makes sense to link this to a story and a child friendly character. Fusion Coaching are offering a free resource for teachers, LSAs, counsellors, coaches and anyone working with children who would like to help children understand their brains, their emotions and to learn some essential mind management skills they can take with them into the adult world.

Get your free copy of Little Bear’s Search for Happiness here



Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.