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Tantrums & Meltdowns

Tantrums & Meltdowns

By Karen Taylor

Last month I wrote about tantrums and meltdowns, and from the response,  it was clear that many parents are struggling with this.  I responded to those who wrote to me, and thought I’d share two letters, since they describe two different kinds of tantrum causes, with different suggestions for handling them.

Perhaps it will be comforting for some of you to know you aren’t alone, and perhaps one of the tips will be useful to you!  I’d also like to add that in just a few short years, your children will have much more control over their emotions, and your days will be easier!

The first letter is about  a 2-year-old who screams when she doesn’t get her way:

I just read your article on tantrums and meltdowns.  My daughter is only 2 ½, so I have a feeling I am going to have to wait it out, but I thought I’d spell out the situation for you and see if there is a better way to change her behavior.

Sometimes, I am not even sure why the crying starts.  It is usually because she didn’t get her way.  The other day she had to pee, but her brother was using the bathroom by our living room.  Well, I bought two potty chairs exactly the same, just for this occasion.  I told her let’s go to the other bathroom.  NO! and the screaming and crying begin.  I told her very calmly that she needed to stop crying.

I did actually give her two warnings, the second was the warning with the consequence.  Which was time out.  A few seconds later a sat her in the timeout chair and proceeded to ignore her temper tantrum.  She screamed and cried for 20 minutes.  Pleading Mommy, mommy, mommy.

As soon as she came to a complete stop, I went to her, talked to her about what she did wrong, had her apologize and picked her up and gave her love.  This is supposed to be an effective solution, however, we still have at least one break down every day.

Sometimes, she will start to cry because I am late responding, but if she sees I am on the way, she will stop right away.   I try to make sure I never give her what she wants while she is still crying.  I don’t think it is getting worse, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better.  She will be three in January.

My gut tells me it’s the terrible twos and to just keep at it.  It is wearing me down however.  So, is there a better way?   Or even just a different way? Thanks for offering up your time like this, I appreciate it very much.

Dear Mom,

Oh my, it’s hard to know what makes our little ones do what they do!  I know that when they cry, it’s often for a good reason, from their perspective!  It’s just that we don’t get it, or don’t think it’s important.  And, when they are really little, they aren’t usually going to be able to verbalize what the problem is.

Time outs often don’t work, although I think we all give them a try out of desperation.  If used, they seem to be more effective with older children.

I think with the potty chair incident, I might be inclined to calmly and matter of factly tell her now, while she’s calm, that if she can’t go potty in any bathroom and even use a big toilet if you are away from home, then she just isn’t old enough and will need to go back to diapers, and that she can try again later when she’s ready.   It just isn’t worth screaming and crying over, and it would certainly give her something to think about.  I think she’d probably look very shocked and tell you that of course she is ready to be a big girl!

You are right on target by not giving her what she wants when she is crying.  I’d take it one step further and make sure that once the crying stops, that she doesn’t get what she wanted before it started.  The message is that once there’s a melt down, the deal is off.

One trick for getting through the screaming melt downs is to walk away from the screams and go do something else if you are at home and you know she is safe.  Most kids will stop screaming if they don’t have an audience.  🙂   The first time you try it, she might try screaming louder, thinking you aren’t really hearing her, or she might stop and go looking for you.  She’ll figure out that a melt down is a lot of work and doesn’t help her cause, so she’ll stop doing it.

If you know she is safe, walk away and sing to yourself or do anything that helps you tune out the stressful noise.  Go read a book, water plants, put on a headset and listen to music or anything fun that lets her know you’re not paying attention to her unacceptable behavior.  The main thing is not to yell, threaten, or do anything that rewards her for this behavior.

If you are in public, calmly pick her and quietly tell her that the you are going homeThen do it – but with no anger, and remaining in control.  An out of control child really needs their adult to be in control!  If you are walking through a store with a screaming kid, sing to yourself to distract yourself from the embarrassment that you feel – and remember that  everyone around you is sympathizing because they’ve been through it too!  The only thing we observers get upset about is watching a mom scream louder than her kids, because we start to worry that both kids and mom are out of control and maybe it’s not safe for the kids.

Later, when all is calm and happ y, you might try talking to her about what made her cry.  She’s still young, so she may not know, but some young children may have something they want you to know.  It’s not too young to start respecting their thoughts.   Although she can’t always have everything she wants when she wants, she’ll appreciate knowing that someone will listen to her.

At this age, kids change about every 6 months, and it’s a hard then easy then back to hard cycle. Here’s a link to one of my favorite books for parents of two year olds (they wrote books for every year!)  The more we understand about our little ones, the easier it is to endure their stages.  I hope it’s better for you soon!

The second child is a 4-year-old who has meltdowns when she goes shopping, and both Diane Flynn Keith and I had some tips to share!

I read your article on tantrums and meltdowns and I’m hoping you could be of additional help to my husband and me.  We have a very strong-willed 4-year-old daughter. She throws temper tantrums in stores almost on a regular basis.  We do give her 1 warning and then follow through.

An example would be on Monday I took a picture into Michaels to be framed. While I was talking to the store clerk I had to separate my son and daughter (put one of each side of me since they were arguing).  Once I moved my daughter to the side, she refused to stand, threw herself on the floor, and made the well-known whining noises and “mommy, mommy, mommy” requests.

I told her to get up from the floor and stop being rude or I would have her father take her out of the store.  She kept at it and her father took her to the van while I finished up.  Once my son and I got back to the van my daughter apologized for being rude.

The problem is she doesn’t seem to learn her lesson. Later that afternoon, we repeated the almost exact scenario at another store.  This isn’t anything new as we have been dealing with this for 2 years now but nothing seems to help.  Our extended family thinks putting her in preschool would teach her how to act.  My husband and I do not believe that, and I believe it may make her behavior worse.  Any help or ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Karen’s Response:

It’s bad enough to be dealing with regular meltdowns without having family members implying that the answer would be to send your daughter to preschool! I hope I can give you some encouragement. I like that you followed through with what you said and had Dad take her to the car, but since that has not been not enough to stop the tantrums, let’s see if we can tweak your strategy a bit.

It’s possible that she just can’t tolerate extended outings yet.  She may be too tired, too hungry, too bored, or just unable to cope when out.  She may also need more attention from you than she’s able to get while you shop.  I would suggest looking at it from her perspective, and limit trips to the store for awhile.  It’s not a punishment, but it’s recognizing that stores are hard for her right now.  When you absolutely must take her with you, keep it as short as you can until the meltdowns stop, and make sure you let her know ahead so she can plan her play time accordingly. A change in plans for the day (and yes, she has her own plans for her day!) can distress some children.

Your goal is help her not fall apart in a store.  Plan ahead by having your purse stocked with a snack that she enjoys.   You don’t want it to be a bribe as in “you’ll get a cookie if you are good” but instead let her know that “I am going to be keeping crackers (or raisins or something that travels well that she likes) in my purse and if you start to get hungry, please let me know and I will give you something as soon as I am able”.   I think it’s ok to let her know that some stores won’t allow food or that you might not be able to drop everything, so she needs to quietly ask you just one time – and your part of the bargain is that you won’t get distracted and forget.

Make sure she’s entertained when you must take her shopping with you.  If there’s a cart, perhaps she can ride in it so she’s closer to eye level with you and not just looking at a sea of legs.  Talk to her about what you are doing – basically think aloud, and also ask for her opinions.  If she’s not bored, she’s less likely to have a meltdown.  While you’re chatting, if she has an idea you can use, be sure to let her know.  If you do that, she’ll be actively looking for the next great idea!

If your excursion involves interaction with a clerk or needing to be very focused, bring a small toy so that she has something to keep her occupied while she’s waiting for you to be done.

I’m hoping that with these tips, she won’t reach the desperate final straw when the meltdown erupts.  At that point, she’s out of control, so it doesn’t do any good to tell her she’s rude – she’s really not rude (that behavior is yet to come once she’s older!).  Right now her little inexperienced body can only take so much before she falls apart.
Diane’s Response:

I recognize this behavior.  In my son’s case, it helped to prepare him BEFORE we went to the store.  Little kids live in the moment and often don’t remember what happened last time (especially if they were having a fit). Counselors advised me to explain in detail what he could expect IN ADVANCE, and to always carry necessities such as water, wipes, snack, toy, coloring book, crayons, a lovie that soothed him, etc.  So….

1)  Explain that in ____minutes or a little while we are going to the ________.

2)  Explain what is likely to happen and what you’ll do:

  • When we get there, I’ll park the car. I’m going to need your help and cooperation so we can get in and out of the store quickly.
  • When we get to the store, we must use our “library (quiet) voices.” We must not disturb the other people in the store because they are either working or trying to buy what they need and go home to their family.
  • While we wait in line, you can stand on my left (the wedding ring side), and your brother can stand on my right (the ringless finger side).
  • I know that waiting in line can be boring and frustrating. I know you can be patient the whole time we wait. To pass the time, we’ll bring a toy to play with. Which toy do you want to take into the store?  The____ or _____? (Give a choice, but make sure the choices are toys that be easily managed and carried by the child alone.)

If the child gets through this, give them a hug and tell them “Thank you so much for being so patient in the store. You really helped make waiting easy.”  Reinforce with your words and actions the behavior you desire. Catch them doing things right!

If the wait is longer than expected, you can always offer water, a snack (tiny box of raisins), or pass out a sugarless lifesaver candy and challenge everyone to see how long they can make it last.  Open your mouth occasionally to show them, you still have yours – do they still have theirs?

Set your “tantrum radar” on high. Pay attention and you can pick up cues from your child when they are nearing their emotional/physical limits. I kept a finger puppet in my purse for occasions when I could detect a meltdown might happen. The puppet would ask my child how he felt and have a conversation with him.  It was always good for at least 5 minutes.

If the wait is really longer than expected and you do have another adult there – TAKE ACTION BEFORE THE MELTDOWN OCCURS.  If you know the child will dissolve, then have daddy take them for a walk outside BEFORE it happens.  It’s not a punishment, it’s a distraction that will prevent them and you from a potentially embarrassing/humiliating meltdown.

Remember that more than anything your child loves you and wants to please you. They want you to be happy with their behavior.  Help them be the best they can be by setting them up for success.

It requires very mindful parenting – but in the long run, the extra diligence on the part of the parent pays off with a child who learns coping mechanisms for stressful situations and feels good about themselves rather than being designated as the kid in the family who “always” has a meltdown.

Karen Taylor provides regular homeschooling information and mentoring on Facebook, and she is the Directory of Cedar Life Academy, a Private School Satellite Program (PSP) for homeschoolers in California.

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