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Six Things You Should Never Do During a Teen Meltdown (And Three Things You Should Do)

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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When we say meltdown, you probably know what we’re talking about. Yelling, arguing, slamming doors. Calling names, hurling insults. Extreme emotions. Crying and screaming. Maybe even aggression.

It’s normal for teens to have intense mood swings – and thus meltdowns – from time to time.  But the way a parent reacts during a meltdown can make a huge difference. The right reaction can calm your adolescent down and cut the meltdown short, while the wrong response can escalate emotions and exacerbate the situation.

Here are six things you should never do during a teen outburst or meltdown, adapted from this helpful article by Jeannie Colvin, MFT, a therapist who specializes in working with teens in Newport Beach, California.

During a Teen Meltdown, You Should Never…

  1. Get Angry. Your teen is already frustrated and upset. Getting angry will only add fuel to the fire and escalate their emotions.
  2. Insult them. While you may be tempted to tell your teen to “grow up” or “stop acting like a baby,” this only makes the situation worse. It’s hurtful to your adolescent and won’t do anything to stop the meltdown.
  3. Trying to problem-solve, argue, or teach your teen a lesson during a meltdown is ineffective. When your teen is in mid-meltdown, the primitive part of their brain is in charge. Their stress levels are extremely high and their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse-control, isn’t functioning. Logical reasoning does not work on a teen who’s in the middle of an emotional breakdown.
  4. Issue threats. You may be tempted to threaten your teen to calm down – or else. But these threats, usually made out of anger, only add fuel to the fire. They also teach your teen that during times of crisis, they can use threats to try and get what they want.
  5. Depending on the type of teen you have, staying in the room and watching them spin out of control might escalate their emotions. For others, leaving the room makes them angrier, as it causes them to feel neglected. You need to know what kind of teen you have and judge, based on trial and error, whether you should stay in the room – but keep quiet – or leave.
  6. Give in. If your teen is angry because of something you forbade them to do, or said you wouldn’t do for them, do not concede to their demands just because they have a meltdown. Though you may be tempted to give in just to make the screaming stop, this erodes the parent-child boundary and undermines your authority.

What You Should Do During a Meltdown

So, what should a parent do during a teen outburst or meltdown?

Here’s a quick three-step method you can try:

  1. Stay calm.
  2. Don’t engage.
  3. Practice deep breathing and slowly count to ten – or a hundred, depending – while you wait for the meltdown to pass.

If your teen shouts at you, asks provocative questions and demands you engage, you can simply reply:

 “I don’t respond to yelling.”

Ask them to come back to you in a few minutes, when they calm down, and you’ll be happy to talk.

Mental Health Treatment for Teens with Behavioral Issues

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try implementing reasonable tactics, they don’t work. If your teen has frequent and/or disruptive outbursts, and none of your interventions succeed, it’s time to consider seeking assistance from a mental health professional.

Teens who struggle with emotional issues like depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, anger management issues, trauma, attention-deficit disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) tend to have more frequent meltdowns than those without similar diagnoses. These temper tantrums often cause relationship problems with parents, siblings, and friends.

Individual and family therapy can help reduce these outbursts, or eliminate them altogether. The first thing to do when seeking treatment is to schedule a complete clinical evaluation with a specialist in adolescent behavioral disorders. From there, in collaboration with mental health professionals, you can decide what your teen needs. They may require outpatient therapy, an intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization program (IOP/PHP), or a residential treatment center (RTC).

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