5 Steps to Take When Your Child Has an Emotional Seizure and Shuts Down

diane sitting on steps with three kidsA mom shared with me an experience she had earlier in the day.

Her eight-year-old son had wanted to stop at McDonald’s and was overridden by the family vote to go to Wendy’s instead. The mom said she knew what was coming as soon as he began to protest loudly.

He would eventually scream at the entire family and then totally shut down, folding his arms across his chest and refusing to talk or move or respond in any way.

She said, “We knew it was another pout. They happen often and could take an hour, or sometimes several hours, for him to come out of it. He won’t talk, won’t make eye contact, and won’t let anyone touch him. It’s like he’s gone.”

She shared, too, how she and her husband would run the gamut of annoyance to anger to frustration to helplessness when this happened. They would try reasoning, threatening to take away something important, even sometimes physically picking him up and putting him in his room while he flailed and screamed.

I could hear both her frustration and her fear. Deep down I also knew she was feeling overwhelmed by her powerlessness to help him.

“It’s like he’s not with us anymore. I want to throw cold water on him just to wake him up,” she explained.

“My sweet, sensitive little boy turns into this strange, almost possessed, child. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to reach him. I know eventually he will come out of it and be back to being himself again. But it’s frightening! I just don’t know what to do.”

Feeling helpless while your child is struggling can bring a parent to their knees.

Child behavior can often be confusing. But it is especially challenging when you don’t know why your child is behaving a certain way and you don’t know how to respond effectively.

We talked for quite a while.

Mostly I listened and communicated my appreciation for the depths of her pain for him and for her frustration around not knowing why he was doing this and how she could respond.

What I gleaned from her conversation was that she felt her son should be able to control this.

At some level, she felt he was doing it on purpose, perhaps even as manipulation. She thought his pouting was intentional, and therefore, she should not ever give in to his demands because she would be reinforcing this negative behavior.

I agree with the part about not giving in because of what it might reinforce, but I disagree with her understanding of the situation.

Some children are super sensitive.

There are certain children who are so extremely sensitive to the world around and inside them, they sometimes get overwhelmed by their feelings and sensations and do not know how to cope.

While they may not have the words for it, they feel powerless about being so overly sensitized that they have what we might call emotional seizures.

They melt down emotionally then shut down to all around them. It’s more than a temper tantrum, although similar. It’s almost a desperate, reflexive attempt to shut out the world and cut themselves off from everything and everybody.

In this highly sensitized state, any external input, such as someone touching them or being more aggressive physically with them exacerbates those confused, out of control feelings of helplessness.

The child is not capable of thinking because of internal dysregulation when parents try to use some form of logic. The lower parts of his brain are running the show, and people talking to him are asking to move him to the higher regions where cognitive thought resides.

It is so important for parents to know this is not a voluntary reaction to being frustrated.

It is so much deeper and more profound than that.

Highly sensitive children live with higher levels of anxiety and fear. All their feelings are more extreme than for the typical child.

Frustration sets off a chain reaction, and the outward behaviors that may look purposeful are an almost desperate attempt to find some degree of control.

It is as if the mind is saying, “Find a way to be in charge of something about yourself. That means you can be in charge of speaking or not speaking. You can demand that people not touch you. You can decide not to look at anybody and not to respond to anybody. This is how you are in control.”

A picture of Dr. Bruce PerryDr. Bruce Perry, neuroscientist, child psychiatrist and creator of the Neurosequential Model, brilliantly shares a paradigm for all parents, teachers and caregivers of children to embrace.

A child must first regulate before he can relate to another human and before he can reason, or be cognitive. When children are in a highly dysregulated state, they need the adults around them to appreciate what they are doing is not voluntary. They are not trying to be bad. They are not looking for attention, and they are not able to just snap out of it. Just as a physical seizure is not in a person’s control, and they can’t just use their mind to stop it, an emotional seizure should receive the same respect.

Here is my recommendations to this parent.

When your child gets dysregulated, mentally note that this is an emotional seizure.

  1. He is not doing so on purpose and has no real control to stop it from happening.
  2. Keep him safe and do what you can to respect the boundaries he sets up.
  3. When he finally comes out of it, do not do anything to shame or blame him.
  4. In a quiet moment, if you can sit on your lap and hold him gently, tell him that you know that what happened earlier was not his fault, that he was probably scared and needed to just shut down.
  5. Any words that might let him know you understand and appreciate him, are not mad at him and are available to help will eventually lead to more important conversations to equip him with the tools of regulation.

Emotionally sensitive children are more vulnerable than typical children.

Parents, teachers and other caregivers need to appreciate how painful it can be to live in an inner world of heightened sensitivity, and they need to provide gentle appreciation, support and guidance that nurtures rather than attacks those sensitivities.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Do you have a child who you consider to be emotionally sensitive? What are some of the ways these sensitivities manifest?
  2. What are some of your approaches to guiding your child when they experience one of these “emotional seizures?”
  3. Why do you think it’s so important to appreciate and respect that your child is not reacting in such a way on purpose, and needs more of your support than some form of punishment or discipline?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute