In the process of answering questions for parents who are flummoxed by their kids' behavior, I come up with metaphors and analogies to help them understand what's really going on, which helps them take a more effective approach so they can support their child AND stay as calm as possible under trying circumstances. Here are a couple of ways to understand the tantrums and meltdowns and their benefits. Let me know what you think.
Here's the first one... it's kinda gross, but I can't think of a better way to understand the intense release!
If you were able to physically see the stuff your child is releasing during tantrums, you'd see tantrums in a whole new light. Imagine that with each rage-filled scream...particles of bad feelings were physically flying off your kid and dissipating into the ether... that's virtually what is happening. When a child is crying and melting down, that child is unpacking and shedding of a massive amount of pent-up pain, anger, sadness, humiliation, disappointment, and so forth. Little kids and highly sensitive people don't have a lot of capacity to store those feelings, so they release them rather unelegantly, but, as they say, "better out than in!"
So, what is a poor, innocent parent to do? The release is not necessarily about you, but you are still in a position to help with it, and that means you could be the hapless target.
Well... to have a better idea of how to think about this thing so you can transform your anger into empathy, and to use a rather disgusting metaphor that, unfortunately, fits the bill very accurately, this kind of release is like, well, vomiting.
When your child or someone you love is vomiting, what is the best approach? You don't try to get the vomiting to stop during the process, right? You want them to get it all out, and you want them to get it all out in a safe space that is not all over you or all over the furniture, right? So, you take that person to an appropriate place and you hold their hair and you make comforting sounds and have empathy for the person who is feeling HORRIBLE (because you have probably been in their shoes at one time or other). You respect their dignity. And, you know that they will feel LOADS better after they have gotten it all out.
Same for a child who is having a tantrum. Same.
And, here's another way of thinking about the mechanism of tantrums and meltdowns:
Stored feelings. Humans of all ages do this thing in which we store up our unhappy feelings. You could think of it like a trash can or a compost bin in the kitchen: You keep adding little bits of trash or compostables to the bin until it gets full, and at some point, you'll want to take it out and empty the can.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, we don't take out the trash (maybe it's just not safe to do it), and we keep trying to stuff additional trash into the over-filled trash bin. We know we're going to have to take that out sooner or later, and if we've been compacting and compacting the trash (can you tell that I have some experience with this?), even when we try to empty it, some of the trash gets stuck and it's hard to get it out.
But, sometimes, we might try to add just...one...more...thing, and that causes the bin to fall over and much of the messy trash to spill out. And, then we have a huge mess on our hands that needs to be mopped up. Once we mop it up, we feel a whole lot better. The trash bin is empty, the mess is cleaned up, and everything smells good again, and there's more room to store those little bits of trash that inevitably come into our lives and need a place to go.
We do that with our unhappy feelings, too. And, tantrums are like the over-filled trash bin spilling over.
Now, sometimes a kid knows that their bin is too full and they need to empty it, but they don't quite know how. So, they will actually use a triggering event to cause the bin to spill over, because the bin is already uncomfortably full. And, highly sensitive kids have smaller bins that fill much more quickly.
My go-to for helping kids in the midst of this kind of release is to say nothing, to be comforting in actions and intention, and to make comforting sounds only...no explanations...no distractions...no trying to make things better or giving advice. That can come later. Think of this way...you can't empty the trash and stuff more trash in simultaneously.
Also, keep modeling great coping mechanisms for releasing your own anger and unhappiness. Be very transparent about your process so that your child will have someone to model after.