How to (lovingly) physically contain your child
No need to end the tantrum. Move it to a smaller room. And stay.
Has this ever happened to you? Your child is starting to get upset, you access the calm, kind, validating parent inside of you… and it just doesn’t help at all. Screaming ensues, crying escalates, kicking and flailing begin, maybe words like “I HATE YOU! GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!” or “YOU’RE THE WORST PARENT IN THE WORLD” are thrown in the mix. I’ve been there. Many times.
What do we do when our child is beyond the point of no return? What do we do when our child is engaging in dangerous behavior?
Let’s (always) first understand what’s going on for a child and then put together a game plan. Ok, the understanding first, and I’ll make this short because the containment process is the focus of this post.
The truth is… I don’t know what, exactly, is going on in these intense moments. What I do know is this: a child is having very big, very real feelings and isn’t looking to feel any better too quickly. Children often look for opportunities to discharge stored-up uncomfortable feelings after those feelings have accumulated to a no-longer-manageable level.
It’s safe to assume that when children have one of these “point of no return” meltdowns, they are saying to you, “This is not just about this moment. I’ve been having a lot of distressing feelings and my body feels on fire and it just all needs to come out. Please give me a safe space for this outflow of emotion. And please stay in that space with me, hold the boundary lovingly even when I protest, and have some faith that I will be ok again soon.”
Am I saying that I would let my kid kick and hit me in the yard or call me nasty names at a birthday party or just continue the “I hate you, you’re the worst, get away from me!” monologue around the house? NO – I absolutely would not allow any of these. Would I allow my child to discharge much of this energy (not the physical aggression!) in his room while I am sitting there as a witness? YES – and this is the key to the “method” of containment.
We need to put up a physical boundary (which we have in the walls of a small room and we don’t have in the vastness of a yard or around a house) around a child’s intense emotional experience to help a child start to regulate. I literally mean moving a child to a smaller room with you, versus allowing her tantrum to permeate through the house or in a backyard. Boundaries are critical in helping children feel safe, as they communicate: “Your feelings can come out but I will stop them from destroying the world around you. Getting the feelings out will help you but acting out in fury will make you feel worse. So, I will allow the first and prevent the second.”
One final important point: some children are simply more prone to have these beyond the point of no return meltdowns. They feel things more deeply and for a longer duration of time than other kids. Deeply-feeling children often evoke in us parents a search for blame, as we alternate between “What is wrong with my child?” and “What is wrong with me, the parent?”. But here’s the thing: it’s nobody’s fault. Not yours and not your child’s. It’s mostly temperament that causes a child to have these intense emotional displays. And what we need to start practicing is acknowledging blaming thoughts when they arise (“Ah… there you are, blaming thought. You’re visiting again. Hello!”) and then allowing another thought, something like: “This is nobody’s fault. My child is feeling things intensely. My child needs my help.”
Let’s go through the no-blame containment strategy, step-by-step:
1. Recognize when your child is past the point of no return. Some signs: a meltdown escalates rapidly, a child rejects your soothing and gets more upset, there is flailing, either physical (hitting, kicking, body thrashing on the floor) or verbal (screaming, aggressive words toward you).
2. Tell yourself: “My child needs my containment help. She is going to try to reject it. I am still going to do what I know needs to be done. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” Your child will try to reject your help, but she’s really saying to you, “Please be strong. Do the thing that’s best for me even when I test you and scream and protest.”
3. Take a few deep breaths then go up to your child and pick her up and carry her into her room or a room that is relatively “safe” (i.e., there aren’t dangerous items that will get incorporated into the emotional storm). Take another deep breath and then say only this as walk with your child: “I love you. I am going sit with you while you let all of this out.” Your child will most likely resist you. She might yell “NO, NOOOOO!!!” or tell you that she will calm down if you let her leave. Stay the course. You know what she needs right now – your loving presence + containment.
4. Get into the room, shut the door, sit at the door so your child cannot get out. Will she try? Probably, yes. Luckily, you’re bigger than her. Sit there. Tell yourself, “I can do this. She is testing me, trying to see if I am scared by her big feelings. I am not, even though they do feel overwhelmingly large right now! I will stay here and stay steady to show her that she’s a good loveable kid, that the feelings inside her aren’t so bad after all. I can do this!”
5. What do you do? A few things to start: first of all, prevent any physical aggression. To feel safe and regulate, children need proof that parents can “stop” them from making bad decisions. Get your hands ready so you can block a hit or a kick, take a deep breath, and say to your child, “I won’t let you hit me. I’m in here because I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings. It’s ok for you to be having them but I won’t let you hit.”
6. Focus on your own deep breathing. Make them a bit exaggerated and audible, both for yourself and for your child. If you do nothing but sit at the door and take deep “straw” breaths, you’re ahead of the game. Kids biologically pick up on their parents’ emotional state; if in a state of such major dysregulation, they can feel your regulation, you are helping them calm down.
7. Tell yourself, over and over, “This is ok. I am ok. My child is ok.” If it feels very odd to be sitting with your child in this way, tell yourself, “This feels so weird to me, which is a sign that this is a really new thing for me to do. That’s actually a good sign, a sign of change.”
8. Before you talk to your child, find your slow pace and soft tone. Loud messy tantrums need calm steady voices. Tell your child some collection of the following, more slowly and quietly than feels natural: “You’re ok. You’re having big feelings. I’m here. I love you. Do your thing. You’re allowed to feel this way.” Or try to sing a simple song over and over, very slowly, something like, “Blake Blake it’s ok… Blake Blake it’s ok… Blake Blake it’s ok… let’s take a deep breath,” and then take an audible slow diaphragmatic breath (you can see me demonstrate this type of song in my IGTV video “Helping Your Child Regulate: Non-Verbal Cues and Generous Interpretation”). The theme here is that if you say anything, your tone and pace has to be regulating. Our calm in the face of a tantrum feels very safe to children. Wait it out. It can take 5, 10, sometimes 20 minutes. Go back to Step #7 to keep yourself calm.
9. If once in the room, your child still needs containment (which you’ll know by her demolishing the room or being a danger to herself or you), she needs to have you very lovingly and very securely hold her so she cannot continue to destroy the world around her. Think about a loving hug that says “My body is around yours. I’m moving even closer to you because you really need me right now. I’m keeping you safe.” You can even say these words.
10. You may find that your child resists you even though she really needs it. Or perhaps your child is getting bigger and you’re not sure you could hold her. Learning how to implement Loving Physical Containment in the face of intense dysregulation is critical to helping many children. Having said that, this strategy, especially the Hold aspect, is more nuanced than others I write about due to its physicality, and if you feel hesitant about it, please do discuss with a mental health professional.
Try This at Home:
Review this step-by-step process of moving with your child into a room. Of all the things I write about, I’d say that this containment method is something to really consider before you do it. Talk to your partner, maybe think about which of you would be best to implement it. The key here is being able to stay calm the whole time so you don’t add fear to your child, who is clearly in fight-or-flight mode to begin with.
Also, think about these practical ideas: Which room would be the best “container”? If it’s my child’s, are there things I’d need to put on a high shelf or away in a closet when I enter, so the room is safer? In other words, are there hard plastic toys or blocks or jewelry boxes that I should put out of my child’s reach? Can I print out this article and put it in somewhere hidden in my child’s room (maybe under a dresser or bed) so, when the moment comes, I can grab it and glance at it here and there? What else would I need to help me stay grounded when my child is having such a hard time?
Let this strategy marinate for a little while before you think about trying it. Ironically, give yourself permission to not put this into action, yet.