357: Tips for Staying Calm During Your Big Kid’s Big Meltdowns // Cheryl Cardall

Do you struggle to stay calm during your big kid’s big meltdowns

You’re not alone! As a parent of spirited, intense children, I have plenty of experience with big meltdowns and “bad” behaviors. Whether it’s a child losing their crap because they have the wrong socks for skiing, or a child lashing out with some big swear words when they are overtired and overstimulated, I’ve been there… most likely in the last week. 

It can be especially frustrating when the kid losing it is a big kid! Shouldn’t he be old enough to deal with this by now? What is wrong with her? What have I done wrong as a parent? 

Our big kid’s big meltdowns can be a big burden that layers on shame, guilt, worry, and anger. It can be extremely difficult to stay calm, and, let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t want to stay calm! 

Through over a decade of researching parenting, I have developed some solid skills for staying calm and emotionally safe when my kids are dysregulated, and one of my friends who has been on this journey with me is Cheryl Cardall. 

I have watched with admiration as she’s learned how to parent her own family of strong-willed, neurodiverse children with love, connection, and humor. Her ability to hold it together during her big kid’s big meltdowns is inspiring. I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Cheryl and learn tips from her that I will be applying as I parent my own firecracker children. 


Cheryl’s Tips for Staying Calm During Your Big Kid’s Big Meltdowns: 


1. Remember it’s the fault of the amygdala, not your child, when he or she has an irrational meltdown. 

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure in our brain. It detects danger and alerts our nervous system to go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode. Our kids don’t have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate the amygdala. (And yes, even our teenagers don’t yet have a fully developed brain!) 

When the amygdala is activated, our child is not thinking rationally. They can’t be logical. They can’t learn lessons. Highly sensitive kids tend to have a very alert amygdala. When it activates, they react with the same emotional response as if a tiger were chasing them, even if the danger is really just an unexpected turn in the day’s schedule. This can lead even big kids to have big meltdowns!  

Our instinct in these moments is to shut it down and shame them. However, when we understand what’s happening in their brain, we are less likely to think, “He is such a brat!” or “Why can’t she just get it together?” 

Instead, we can have empathy for their overly-charged system, and this helps us from flipping out ourselves. We can use our fully developed brains to pause and ask ourselves, “Who’s the parent I want to be right now? What does this kid need from me?” Our irrational kid needs us to be the rational adult to help co-regulate the response. 

The key is for us to do our inner work so that we can stay calm in those moments and be that safe person for them. 

After the big feelings have subsided is when you can talk with your kid about what happened, what consequences, if any, need to be enforced, and brainstorm ideas to help for next time. You can say things like, “Hey, I noticed you got really stressed out earlier. Let’s talk about some ways that we can help you next time those feelings come up. We also need to discuss how you will fix the toy you broke when you threw it against the wall.” 


2. Try to keep emotional safety as a top parenting value. 

Keep safety and your relationship with your child at the top of your parenting value list rather than focusing on compliance, obedience, perfection, or achievement. Physical safety is obviously the most important, but emotional safety has to be a top priority in our home, especially for kids with differently-wired brains. 

To our neurodivergent kids, anything we say that seems like a punishment or rejection. Even simply a raised voice, can make them feel unsafe, which can lead to these big kid big meltdowns. It’s our job to get to know our kids really well and to create that safety. 

Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t have any boundaries, rules, or expectations in your home. The key is how you do it: Take a breath and calm your own nervous system, then remind yourself that emotional safety is more important than blind obedience or fear-based compliance. 

We are playing the long game! We can prioritize a close, connected relationship with our children where we stay calm and keep things safe when they are not at their best.


3. Remember that your child’s behavior is a message about how they are doing and what they need.

When we understand that kids do well when they can, we see their behaviors as less of a personal failing or a defiant choice and more of a cry for help and support. It changes the tone of our questions from “What’s wrong with this kid? Why can’t he behave?” to “What’s going on with this kid underneath?” and “Why is she struggling so much? What help can we find for her?” This compassion and empathy is a game-changer! It shifts our perspective and allows us to meet the underlying things going on with our kids. 

Remember that having a big kid who often has big meltdowns can mean it’s a good idea to get extra support. This could be a counselor at school, a therapist, a tutor to help with a difficult school subject, or a mentor to help them learn more about emotions. There are so many options for support out there. Adding support people helps you and helps your child. 


If you have one or several of these firecracker children at home, please know that I see you, I get you, and I’m always rooting for you. Having a big kid with big meltdowns is so difficult, but as we learn strategies to stay emotionally safe for them through their teen years (as their amygdalas are developing), we are giving them such a gift, as well as protecting our relationship with them for a lifetime. 


If you want to listen to the full interview, head to your favorite podcast platform!

>>>Are these tips from Cheryl on staying calm during your big kid’s big meltdowns helpful? What would you add to the takeaways? Tell us in the comments below.  




Related Episodes like this one on  Big Kid’s Big Meltdowns:


Mentioned in the Episode:


About our Guest:

Cheryl Cardall parents her own family of strongwilled, neurodiverse children with love, connection, and humor. Her podcast, Fight Like a Mother, focuses on mental health and parenting kids with extra challenges. She has built a great community on Instagram of like-minded parents, as well as planning in-person and online conferences to bring together parents of children with additional needs. Cheryl is a mom of five, ages 13-24. 


Get in touch with our Guest: 


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