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How to Handle Your Child's Back-to-School Meltdowns

Summer is drawing to a close, and school is about to begin. In some school districts, it already has!

Goodbye unstructured days of swimming, Instagramming and hanging with friends. Hello homework, jammed schedules and deadlines.

While some children look forward to the start of the new school year, others struggle with the transition, especially in the first weeks or months.

What to do if your child throws a tantrum over a homework assignment, a demanding teacher or any other number of back-to-school woes?

Rob DaSilva offers suggestions for parents struggling with exactly this. He is a program supervisor at Hillsides, a Los Angeles County nonprofit headquartered in Pasadena that provides residential and community-based treatment for children, transitional-aged youth and families involved with the foster care system or who face emotional or behavioral challenges.

When children are upset, however, they need breathing room. Simply taking a step or two back can have a calming effect on your child.

DaSilva utilizes techniques from a cognitive behavioral intervention program called Aggression Replacement Therapy (A.R.T.) to calm down the children, and he trains the Hillsides staff, including this writer, in this method.

While different children have different reactions to stress, here are his tips for soothing your child during a meltdown:

Deal with your own feelings first

When your child emotionally floods, it's only natural for you to feel upset and possibly angry. "When you feel this way, you can project this onto your child," says DaSilva. Instead, you'll want to de-escalate your own feelings before you can effectively handle the situation.

To do this:

· Take a few deep breaths from your stomach. "Many people underestimate the power of breathing, but it really calms down the amygdala, the part of the brain that manages emotion," says DaSilva.

· Count to three. This counting buys you time to further get a handle on your emotions. Some parents count backward from three to one, but this can backfire. "When we think of a rocket ship blasting off, it can unconsciously signal our feelings to blast off as well," he says.

· Conjure up some pleasant imagery. For example, think of yourself at the beach with your feet in warm sand and the sounds of waves breaking in the distance. Visualization can lower your heart rate and blood pressure.

MORE: How Much Do You Tell Your Child's Teacher?

Choose the right words

Words might seem to have no effect on a child in the heat of a tantrum, but they do get through. Here are some phrases to use — and a couple to avoid:

· Ask "Can I help you?" or "Where are your feelings coming from?" Your child may not take you up on the offer or have an immediate answer, but your words let him know you're on his side.

· Avoid the verbs "need" or "want," such as "I need you to stop screaming" or "I want you to behave now," says DaSilva. These phrases can come off as threatening even if you don't mean them to be.

· Praise. Saying things such as "I really like how you are starting to calm down" will give your child the encouragement needed to get back on even keel. Any criticism, such as "I hate it when you act like this," can inflame any out-of-control feelings and do the opposite.

Pay attention to your body language and tone of voice

Research has shown that much of communication is non-verbal, so make your body language mirror your words:

· Give your child more physical space. Sometimes when we try to comfort our children, we get physically very close to them. When children are upset, however, they need breathing room — at least three feet, says DaSilva. Simply taking a step or two back can have a calming effect on your child.

· Set your face in "neutral." Frowning can alarm your child, and smiling seems false or even taunting. Instead, attempt to show no emotion. It may help, says DaSilva, to imagine and mimic the face of a fireman entering a fire zone, projecting control, confidence and competency. That is the expression you're aiming for.

· Watch the volume of your voice. No matter how soothing your words are, if you say them in a loud voice, it can agitate your child. Make a conscious effort to speak softer than you do in normal conversation, recommends DaSilva. This will counteract any adrenaline flooding through your system that could cause you to unconsciously raise your voice.

By following these tips, the storm should pass, and you and your child can move on to another activity. If there are lingering issues to be resolved — for example, maybe your child needs tutoring or some help on organization skills — save the discussion for later. Give your child hours or even a day or two to completely recover, and then catch him when he is in a calm and receptive mood.

MORE: Keeping Our Daughters Safe Through Self-Empowerment

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