Family + Parenting

Tantrums and Meltdowns: a Practical Guide

When I was a child my mother would often say to me “I hope you have a child exactly like you one day…” GASP! The nerve, and I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly but it felt like some sort of dig.

Fast forward through three mostly easy and compliant children, and we arrive at THE ONE. The one that really is so much like me. I believe the terms are spirited, strong willed, firey…whatever you call it, it’s exhausting.

I wrote a whole other piece last week on tantrums and was prepared to post it, when life offered some new applications I thought worth sharing.

My previous post was on disciplining tantrums and outbursts and the why behind some of my tactics. I look forward to sharing that in the coming weeks, but until then, we need to back up a step further and decode: Is it a tantrum (willful disobedience and butting of heads) or is it an emotional meltdown (overwhelmed and sobbing for no apparent reason)?

Emotional meltdowns along with over-fatigue usually come on the heels of new stimulating events or circumstances. Large family gatherings, vacations and travel, new school or going back to school…or other emotionally or physically over-stimulating events…often bring out the worst in kids when they have reached their limit. I can’t even say I blame them. After hours of socialization and chatting in my ear I want nothing more than total peace and quiet. When I don’t get that, it takes all the will power in my body to keep me from throwing myself on the floor in protest.

Steps to take when faced with a meltdown or tantrum:

1. Remove the child from any audience. If in public, leave, if at home, accompany them to their room or other private place.

2. Identify if you are dealing with a tantrum (I’m not getting my way) or an emotional meltdown (my feelings are hurt, I’m exhausted). Do this by asking questions. “Are you physically hurt?” “Did someone do something to you?” “Are you frustrated?” “Do you need a break from playing?” Hopefully your child will be able to articulate some sort of emotion that will help you give them tangible solutions. In my home, my daughter loves order. Nothing gets her tensed up quicker than some playmates making a mess in her room. A solution we have for that is encouraging her to tell people that she likes to keep her room tidy. Sometimes she just closes her bedroom door and says “we aren’t playing in there today”. I about died when I saw that one, but also proud! She applied some of the skills we worked on which was proactively taking control.
Now if you get your little one alone and calmly ask them about their feelings and the answer comes back “I WANT MY IPAD NOW!!!!” then you know you are dealing with a tantrum.

3. Tantrums receive consequences. In my house, you would lose the IPad at least 24 hours, maybe more depending on the age. I tie the consequence to the behavior, it makes logical sense and kids remember that. If she has a fit and throws her Barbies, you better believe I’m packing up ALL the Barbies for the week. Most important, whatever you dole out, stick with it. That is life! Far better for our babes to learn that with Mom and Dad than out in the world! I am a lover of justice, so this rings especially true for me.

4. Emotional meltdowns, over-fatigue, and hurt feelings… still needs to be addressed, but it’s fair to apply mercy. In the moment, focus on de-escalation and helping the child return to reason. Offer them quiet time, a nap (because kids love that- ha!) a snack, whatever it is they need. Then talk about how they are feeling and help them establish vocabulary for how they feel. Even very young toddlers can understand you, even if they aren’t offering long thought out explanations. Additionally, It is still important to address the behavior. Meltdowns really aren’t acceptable. We all have to learn to manage our emotions. Self-control is an absolutely vital character trait that they will practice the rest of their lives. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in the center of a crowded Costco and just wanted to lose my mind screaming, or abruptly say, “Hey, get outta the way!”. Luckily for my family I managed to get a handle on that self-control thing. (Took me awhile but I’ve mostly got it)

I have found that sticking to the steps outlined above has helped immensely with my four kids. Each child is different, some are naturally more reasonable while others more spirited, but all have the same final goal; to be emotionally balanced, self-aware, fun to be around kids! As always, consistency is key! So is thinking big picture. I’m really glad my own mother gritted her teeth and worked through my antics, I had a lot to work through! And maybe one day our tantrum-ing, melting-down children will be able to muster up a thank you as well.

Keep on keeping on,