Five Effective Ways to Respond to Tantrums and Meltdowns

Five Effective Ways to Respond to Tantrums and Meltdowns

Do you wish your preschooler or toddler would JUST STOP WHINING? That your child would go to bed maybe the second time she’s asked rather than the 100th? That your children would stop fighting, yelling, tormenting each other, making outlandish demands, or otherwise acting outrageously? If only!

Parents tend to complain about our kids’ “out of control” behavior — that our kids don’t listen, don’t behave, or don’t respect us or their siblings. But expecting young children to master impulse control is like expecting them to multiply fractions: not realistic.  Until about age 7, they just don’t have that rational brain that allows for planning, foresight, and considering others.  You can’t change that fact. But what you can change is how you react to your children’s outbursts — and in doing so prompt calmer behavior from them. When you respond with empathy rather than exasperation or outrage your children are far less likely to resist or retaliate.

Our children are going to replicate our behavior and emotional state because that’s how our brains are wired. The idea isn’t to change your children but to change how you show up and communicate with them.

Why their fury sparks our fury

You know how yawning is contagious? Or how watching someone sip an icy cold lemonade suddenly makes you thirsty?  That’s because of nerve cells in our brain called “mirror neurons”.  We humans are social animals and connect through shared emotions and experiences.  So when our children are having a big tantrum, that cues our bodies to react the same way. But mirror neurons can work in your family’s favor, too. When you stay calm, your child’s body will start replicating your emotional state.

Some children are innately more impulsive than others their age and more prone to outbursts. But no matter what your child’s temperament, or your own, you can help them develop self-control by learning to stay calm yourself.

How to respond to tantrums and meltdowns.

  1. Take a deep breath.

    Before you say a word, let alone shout, “Do you SERIOUSLY think it’s OK to whack your brother on the head with a Pokemon binder?” inhale deeply and then slowly exhale. Those few seconds can mean the difference between flipping your lid and keeping it (somewhat tightly) sealed.

    If you’re feeling too enraged to even take a deep breath, that’s your cue to exit the room until you’re able to chill out.

  2. Start with empathetic statements.

    Empathy is the key to unlocking your inner calm.  It’s important to let your child know you understand and accept their feelings before you say or do anything else.

    So instead of, “How many times do I have to tell you it’s bedtime? Get in bed NOW!” try, “Yeah, I know, it’s so hard to go to bed when you’re having fun playing!”

    A child isn’t likely to dive under the covers just because you’ve shown concern for her feelings. But, empathy opens the door to a child hearing what’s going to come next rather than becoming defensive. When children don’t feel heard, it’s like: Oh, you didn’t hear me? Then I’m just going to say it louder!

    Empathy is also a much more effective response to defiance than over-explaining. Our tendency as parents is to go on and on, to repeat ourselves and try to rationalize with our child.  This is irritating to children and causes them to tune us out.

  3. Resist the urge to punish.

    When your children blatantly defy you or behave unacceptably (see: whacking with Pokemon lunchbox), you may feel like you want to “teach them a lesson” or “show them who’s boss.” You may think doing anything less would send the message: I’m a pushover! Go ahead, walk all over me!

    In truth, inflicting shame, blame, or pain on a child will accomplish nothing good. There’s no learning opportunity when you respond with punishment. It just makes children fear their parents. Either they think I hate you or I am going to find another way to get away with this.

    This doesn’t mean your child has a license to hit, steal from her siblings, or party in her room until midnight. Consequences are fine — your child doesn’t need to like what’s coming — as long as they’re reasonable and delivered respectfully.

    In the long run, “We’re going to put these race cars away for the night, and you guys can play with them tomorrow,” will do more for your children than, “Go to your room NOW — both of you! And forget playing with these cars for a week!”

    Kids do better when they feel better.

  4. Let your child chill.

    These days, our children’s lives are so filled with gadgets, activities, and demands that kids often use up their limited reserves of self-control. If we’re constantly asking children to perform tasks or follow our requests they’ll become less and less successful.

    Scheduled downtime and small play breaks in chores or homework will help your children recharge, behave better, and accomplish what you need them to.

  5. Model self-control and restraint.

    If every time your phone beeps you pick it up, you’re not modeling impulse control for your children.  Likewise, if you shout, “Jerk! Nobody knows how to drive around here!” when a car cuts you off, you’re not demonstrating how to remain calm.  We can’t expect children to be able to control their emotions when we don’t.

    How you respond to frustration and disappointment will strongly influence how your child responds to these strong emotions. Try, “Oh man, I just dropped the dinner salad on the floor! How frustrating! I’m going to take a deep breath and then I will need to clean up this mess and start over.”

    As your children mature, they’ll naturally develop more self-control, but you can make a big difference along the way. Just keep your expectations for impulse control age-appropriate. Toddlers and preschoolers’ brains are still very much under construction.

Secrets to Managing Meltdowns

Need a cheat sheet to remember all this? Click here.

[irp posts=”2696″ name=”Sassy Bossy Back Talk – Understanding Why It Happens and What to Do (by Melissa Benaroya)”]


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya

Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker, and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!

5 Comments

Melissa Benaroya

Thank you so much for your message, Sheila! I am thrilled that you are interested in sharing this information with the families you work with. That cheat sheet has moved and you can find it here in the original post:

https://www.childproofparenting.com/blog/2016/6/6/tantrums-meltdowns-and-fits-childproofing-your-parenting-to-create-greater-calm-ease

Please let me know if there is any other information or resources that would be helpful to you or the families you serve.

– Melissa

Reply
Sheila Parr

Hello, Would you please email me the “Cheat Sheet Childhood Parenting, Secrets to Managing Meltdowns”. I was looking around on your site and found that you have great information for me to share with the parents of the students I serve.
The Cheat Sheet would not open up when I clicked on it. I would greatly appreciate a copy.
Thanks,
Sheila

Reply
Melissa Benaroya

Thank you so much for your message, Sheila! I am thrilled that you are interested in sharing this information with the families you work with. That cheat sheet has moved and you can find it here in the original post:

https://www.childproofparenting.com/blog/2016/6/6/tantrums-meltdowns-and-fits-childproofing-your-parenting-to-create-greater-calm-ease

Please let me know if there is any other information or resources that would be helpful to you or the families you serve.

– Melissa

Reply
IBikeNYC

These are excellent suggestions, AND I am laughing out loud about “Oh man, I just dropped the dinner salad on the floor! How frustrating! I’m going to take a deep breath and then I will need to clean up this mess and start over.”

(I have no children with whom to deal, but I DO have a sixty-eight-year-old Narcissistic Borderline boy.)

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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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