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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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