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Taming Tantrums and Managing Meltdowns

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We’ve all been there. We’re happily shopping or dining, when suddenly, our child turns into a screaming, whining, fitful, out-of-control scary little version of him/herself.

It’s the public meltdown, or tantrum, and it happens to most parents at some point. And, we are likely to become uncomfortable, frustrated, embarrassed, bumbling versions of ourselves. We just want it to stop immediately so we can get back to business. That rarely happens.

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Break Down of a Breakdown

A tantrum is defined as the following: an uncontrolled outburst of anger and frustration; a fit of bad temper; fit of rage; making a scene; meltdown; breakdown; child gone mad; or, practicing one’s monster impression.

The meltdown can be quiet, and include pouting; scowling; refusing to talk, walk, look at you, let go of something, get up off the floor, or do anything he is told. It is frequently accompanied by the forceful “No!”

Tantrums can be loud, and include crying and sometimes shouting. They can also include flailing, kicking, pounding fists, and in severe cases, head-banging.

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Meltdown Motivation

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), we can expect to see some temper tantrums in children from age 1-4 years. Girls and boys are equally likely to have a tantrum, and more than half of young children will have at least one per week.

Tantrums are triggered by hunger, tiredness, boredom, being overwhelmed, transitioning to a new activity, or anything that requires a child to something she doesn’t want to do, or stops her from doing what she does want to do. Tantrums are often the result of anger or frustration, and trying to express wants and needs when they don’t have the words.

NASP also says there are different motivations for different ages/developmental stages. For example a 2-year-old tests the limits. Three-year-olds are less impulsive and are better able to use their words to express themselves, but may have learned that a tantrum is a good way to get what they want.

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Meltdown Management

What do you do when your little beauty becomes a beast in public?

  • Stay calm and be patient. This will help you think rationally, handle the situation better, and let your child see that her tantrum didn’t affect you.
  • Resist the urge to react. Ignore his tantrum at first. Keep busy with the task at hand. This shows your child that the tantrum is not getting her what she wants.
  • When ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, quietly leave the store. Calmly tell your child that it’s time to go, and then go. This shows her that you follow through on your word and that the behavior won’t be tolerated.
  • Limit the talk. That includes explanations, questions and reasoning. Our pediatrician says that reasoning with a child before the ages of 5 doesn’t work. According to research from the University of Connecticut, asking a child questions during a tantrum just makes it worse.
  • Don’t reinforce the behavior. Don’t give him the toy or the cookie you already told him he couldn’t have. Sometimes it’s tempting to just give in so the child will stop. But in the long term, this sends the wrong message, and lets him know this behavior works.
  • Prevent tantrums from occurring. How you handle the current tantrum affects the occurrence or degree of the next one. Try to plan outings during optimal times (when the child is rested, fed, etc.). Bring diversions (snacks, toys, crayons). Let him know what’s expected. Praise, reward, and reinforce desirable behavior.
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