Every parent dread's their child's meltdowns. But if you’re prepared to handle a tantrum, you can come out unscathed and looking like a parenting pro.
This morning your three-year-old was an adorable ray of sunshine. Then, within seconds of announcing it was time to leave the park and go home, her happy-go-lucky mood changed into a raging outburst like a scene in a cringe-worthy horror movie. (With dozens of bystanders in the vicinity, of course!)
What the heck just happened? A tantrum, that’s what! Your child was in the full-blown throes of a meltdown.
No parent enjoys tantrums. But the fact is, they’re a normal part of childhood that every family experiences. The next time your child has a blood-curdling meltdown, try one of these five simple strategies. They’ll help you embrace the moment, rather than cringe, and soon you'll both be feeling the love again.
Strategy #1: Stay calm
Although getting angry might be your first reaction when you’re dealing with an explosive outburst, getting riled up is counterproductive. Kids feed off of the emotional atmosphere around them.
The best thing you can do is to remain calm. Don’t challenge your child when he’s angry. Instead, show him the calm demeanor you want him to mirror.
When one of my kids is pushing my buttons or doing something that I find completely unacceptable, I count to ten (sometimes a lot more!) and talk myself down. Stay calm and in control, this too shall pass.
Take a few seconds to get your feelings in check and shift from being frustrated and ready to lash out to a calmer state.
By taking a few seconds to get my own feelings in check, I can usually shift from being frustrated and ready to lash out to a calmer state. Then, I can handle my child’s situation without losing my composure. When you work to manage your own behavior first, you effectively neutralize the power struggle.
RELATED: 10 Ways to Handle Difficult Days
Strategy #2: Know your child’s trigger points
Tantrums usually arise from one simple thing—a child not getting what she wants. When a child doesn’t get her way, she responds with frustration and, in order to get your attention, she throws a fit. Tantrums are like a test your child is giving to you, her parent. How well do you understand her needs?
In an article about tantrums by The Child Mind Institute, Dr. Vasco Lopes, a clinical psychologist, explained:
A majority of kids who have frequent meltdowns do it in very predictable, circumscribed situations: when it’s homework time, bedtime, time to stop playing. The trigger is usually being asked to do something that’s aversive to them or to stop doing something that is fun for them.
Dr. Lopes recommends building awareness of potential triggers and then eliminating or changing them so they’re less of a problem for your child. Let’s say your child has meltdowns when it’s time to do homework. If you look for the underlying reason for his struggles, you might find that he has problems with organization and prioritizing that make it hard for him to get started.
Once you’ve figured out the issue that triggers meltdowns, you can try to figure out ways to make things easier for your child. Maybe he needs someone to help him figure out what to work on first, or a plan to do his homework in smaller chunks with breaks in between.
Strategy #3: Remote control the tantrum
When one of my kids had a meltdown, one of my favorite ways to handle it was to play a game I called “Remote Control.”
When we want to change channels on our TV or lower or raise the volume, we grab our remotes, right? Well, when one of my kids was throwing a fit or displaying some other type of negative behavior, I would take the remote (or a pretend one), point it in their direction, and say something silly like, “Pardon me, but mom is going to change your angry channel to a happier one.”
Then I would make some funny noises, like I was truly changing the channels, and walk away so they’d know it was up to them to follow the request. My kids loved it when I reduced the tension by doing something silly. And now that they’re older, I still do it when someone has a scowl on their face.
Strategy #4: Practice emotional competence
Emotional competence is an easy concept to grasp, and it can be instrumental in helping your child manage his feelings.
Emotional competence is the ability a person has to express emotions, communicate them clearly, and regulate them. A person’s emotional competence impacts their ability to make friends and have relationships with others.
Emotional competence is the ability a person has to express emotions, communicate them clearly, and regulate them.
One of the reasons younger kids have tantrums is because they haven’t developed good coping skills yet. For example, a 15-month old child who doesn’t have effective language skills can’t tell his mother that he’s still hungry after eating a small snack. When he realizes he’s not getting any more food, instead of communicating verbally that he’s still hungry, he throws himself down on the floor to express his frustration.
Young children don’t have experience in identifying and handling their emotions. One way you can combat tantrums is to talk about and label emotions, starting when your child is very young.
In my interview with Dr. Marc Brackett, author of Permission to Feel, he touched on how we can become “emotion scientists” so that emotions help rather than hinder our success. In his book, he presents a five-step method he calls RULER. This evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning has been adopted by nearly 2,000 schools, pre-K through high school, across the United States and in other countries.
RULER teaches the skills of emotional intelligence—those associated with Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, and Regulating emotion.
Decades of research show that these emotional intelligence skills are essential to effective teaching and learning, sound decision making, physical and mental health, and success in school and beyond.
Talking about emotions can help children process their feelings and better recognize different emotions in themselves and in others.
Talking about emotions can help children process their feelings and better recognize different emotions in themselves and in others. And although this might seem easy when children are happy, it might be more challenging in the face of negative emotional responses, like a temper tantrum.
For example, let’s look at the toddler who’s still hungry but doesn’t know how to ask for more. You could label the emotion by saying, "You seem angry about something."
Labeling emotions can help your child have a better understanding of why he's acting out.
When a child’s emotional reactions make you angry or upset, it’s important to remember that when children exhibit negative emotions, they’re often just looking for support or a way to solve a problem. A short talk about emotions can go a long way.
Strategy #5: Use Humor
One of my favorite ways to diffuse an ornery or defiant child is to get silly and use humor to relieve some of the intensity of the situation.
I love to sing a funny song, all off-key of course. For example, if my 3-year-old wants to scream and protest because I wouldn’t let him have a bunch of candy bars at the check-out line, I would think nothing of grabbing a bar and using it as a microphone to sing something crazy like “Candy is so sweet and yummy, but if you eat it before you have your dinner you’ll have a bad tummy!”
Bystanders are more likely to pay attention to how you handle [a tantrum], not to how your child is behaving.
The humorous approach might not always work, but I could usually get a chuckle out of my child as well as the other shoppers waiting in line.
Pro Tip: When your child has a breakdown in public—and it will happen—try not to feel mortified by his display. Most bystanders have been in your shoes. They’re more likely to pay attention to how you handle the situation, not to how your child is behaving. Keep your cool and show your child and the onlookers that you've got this!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheryl L.Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line to leave your question at 401-284-7575. Your question could be featured on the show! Stay in the parenting loop! Listen and subscribe to the Mighty Mommy show on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.