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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I’m so excited for this! I’m coming back to Perth in February for another parent talk on 'Strengthening Children and Teens Against Anxiety'. Here’s the when and the where:

⏰ 6:30-8:30pm | 📆 Wed 22 Feb 2023
📍 Peter Moyes Anglican Community School, #mindarie

For tickets or more info google:

Parenting Connection WA Karen Young anxiety Mindarie Perth

💜 Thanks to @ngalaraisinghappiness for hosting this event.

#supportingwaparents #parentingwa
Let them know …

Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️

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