How to Deal With Meltdowns – Ours and Our Kids: How Nonviolent Communication Can Shift the Moment

It’s game time. This is something we implemented as a family during COVID-19. At 2 p.m., no more screens, no more phones, we all spend time together and play games. Today, we are sitting around the table playing cards. Cory, the 6-year-old I am helping take care of because his parents need childcare during the virus, loses a hand and then loses his mind. 

He has a complete meltdown in the middle of the game.

Staying at home and parenting during COVID-19 has provided ripe opportunities as parents to witness meltdowns, sometimes multiple times a day. Keep in mind, that some of these meltdowns are a result of the collective stress of the community that our children are unconsciously picking up on. New ways of positive parenting to deal with meltdowns right now could bring needed relief. Today, I decided to try to deal with Cory’s meltdown using nonviolent communication. This is something that Micah Salaberrios, author of The Art of Nonviolent Communication: Turning Conflict into Connection, talks about in Episode 25 of Soul Path Parenting.

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Micah says that nonviolent communication (NVC) is “a way of speaking that is especially useful during conflict…the goal is to find ‘win-win’ solutions to problems and challenges while building connection and being totally authentic.”

I started with what I observed. “Cory,” I said, “I noticed you are refusing to give up your cards and you are crying.”

This didn’t work. He was so busy crying he was not paying attention to my words. Okay, time for what Micah calls the “magic tool” of nonviolent communication –  Emergency Empathy. Micah says this is a “powerful concentrated way to show love”  and that in the face of Emergency Empathy, people “go inner, not outer and it automatically calms them down.” It sounded good, so I decided to try it.

“Cory,” I said, “My guess is that you are upset because you lost that round.”

Cory stopped mid-sob and stared at me. After a pause filled with some quiet heaves, he simply said, “yes.”

Holy cow. It worked. I was so stunned that I was unsure of what to do next. “Okay, quick,” I told myself, “try the four steps of NVC before he begins to meltdown again!”

“What I am seeing,” I said, “is that you are not giving up your cards and that you are crying and you are saying is that it is unfair. What I also am seeing is that we set up the rules of the game before we started and you seem to have broken the rules.”

Now was the time to express how I felt about this and here is where I got into some trouble. 

Having grown up in a “toughen up” environment where ridicule and shame was used to quash meltdowns, my first impulse about how I felt was, “I feel like you are being a baby.” But, I realized that wasn’t actually a feeling. Not only that, I was making it about him, not about what I felt.

My second crack at how I felt was, “I don’t feel like playing with you.” That, too, is not a feeling. 

When I got to the actual feelings, they were one word answers, which is what the principles of nonviolent communication says a true feeling will be once it is identified. 

I finally said, “I feel sad.”

Identifying feelings is trickier than we think. Micah gives us several examples that probably come up for us as parents. He says, for example, “I feel disrespected is not a feeling, disrespect is a perception and implies something has been DONE to someone…and it also implies something has been done to you and you are a victim of them doing this to you. Tricked, cheated, neglected, ignored…all of these imply someone else is bad and wrong and you are a victim to them.”

Do we really want to set up the power dynamic where we are the “victim” to our child’s meltdown?

The next step I went into was explaining what value, preference, need or desire I have that is not being met or honored and is resulting in me experiencing sadness.

“I prefer to play games with people who play by the rules and I value positive, fun time together.”

After this, I went into my request. Micah explains that effective requests need to be “specific, measurable, realistic and not a demand.”

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“Cory, my request is that you play by the rules and if you are angry that you have lost a round that you either tell us on a scale of 1-10 how angry you are and keep playing by the rules or you go to another space and take the time you need to cry and be upset and join us again and continue to play by the rules.”

One of the things I had to remember is that this is a request, and according to the principles of nonviolent communication, in a true request there is no punishment. So, if Cory decided that he was unwilling to accept my request, there would be no punishment. I might not be willing to play cards with him again, but I had to refrain from saying something like, “Okay, then go to your room and think about your actions.”

That night, Cory did not accept my request. He chose instead to stop playing cards with us and go play LEGOS.

However, the next night there was a breakthrough victory that felt a bit win/lose.  Maybe a word like “progress” or “a breakthrough” or “a shift”…?. He agreed to play again and when he lost a round he began to get visibly upset, face reddening and growling. I asked him how angry he was on a scale of 1-10 and he said, “ten!” We all waited with breath held to see if he would let go of his cards and continue to play…and he did. He wasn’t happy about it and he did it. 

I’m not sure if this will work each and every time, but I am open to trying. I believe as soul path parents, many of us may have grown up in environments filled with “violent communication”  (being defined in NVC as “anything that implies someone else is bad or wrong designed to make someone feel bad/guilt trip or implies a threat”). What’s here for us is an opportunity to break old patterns. I’m finding NVC  to be a great tool for breaking old ways – simple, easy to remember, and powerful. 

Test it out with your partners and friends and have fun with it. Next time a parent comes to you about their meltdown with their kid, ask them if they are open to try going through the four steps with you to sort it out (make sure it is an invitation, not a judgment). Next time your own kid has a meltdown, try calling a friend and sorting through the four steps with them before you have the conversation with your kid. It’s possible you may find a lot of peace and, as Micah says, “way less power struggles.”

Related Episode:

Episode 25: The Art of Nonviolent Communication – Micah Salaberrios, Author and Host, The Art of NVC

Shannon is a therapist, former school teacher, and mom. She is the co-author of the book "Sweet Spot: Leveraging Your Talents in Leadership and Life" Currently, Shannon writes about the areas that align with areas that she is passionate about...letting go of the energetic ties that keep us down, personal evolution, and true self-expression.

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