5 tips for dealing with a meltdown
There are many terms used to describe a sudden escalation of a child’s behavior: a tantrum, an emotional outburst, a loss of temper, a meltdown. No matter what word you use to describe it, “an outburst of severe emotional distress” is a situation a parent does not look forward to with their child. It can happen at home or at the grocery store. It can happen whether you’re prepared for it or not. It can happen with lots of people watching or when no one is around. It can happen with teenagers as well as toddlers. Regardless of the circumstances around a meltdown, it should be handled calmly and used as an opportunity to teach your child.
One afternoon, after moving back to America from Norway, where I only shopped using our double-stroller, I was shopping at Target. My almost 3-year-old daughter begged to find a double-cart because her younger brother was now big enough to sit in the cart, which meant that she had to walk if he was with us. I searched the store and was able to find a rare, coveted double-cart. Near the end of our shopping trip my daughter started pushing my son because his new stomach muscles could no longer hold him steady and he was starting to lean to her side of the cart. I asked her a few times to stop pushing him and she eventually escalated into talking angrily and hitting him.
I gave the usual if/then statement, “If you can’t stop bothering him then you’ll have to walk”, a few too many times. I was trying to avoid the meltdown that I thought might come from her having to walk. I had said it enough times that I knew it was time to give the consequence. I was nervous, but I knew I had to follow through. So I explained to her she now had to walk since she hadn’t changed her behavior and took her out of the cart. She immediately, and quite shockingly let out a piercing screaming that I’m sure could be heard from a long distance away. I started explaining what she needed to do to earn back the privilege of riding in the cart, calmly taking her off the cart each time she tried to climb back on. We probably sat in the diaper aisle for 10 minutes until she stopped screaming, crying, and trying to climb back in the cart.
After that, I felt the anxiety decrease, happy that the embarrassing tantrum had been handled, luckily with no other customers coming in the aisle. But as soon as I started walking out of the aisle, the intense screaming and crying started again. I tried to ignore it and keep walking, but I had to stop several times in the middle of the main walkways to talk with her again, help her stop crying, reset the timer that was counting until she could get back in the cart, and then start walking again only to have the same screaming start over. Luckily, I was able to stay calm (which is easier when in a public area). I knew I was acting was rational by not giving in to her, but I couldn’t help but think back to all those days as a social worker when I would go on outings with parents and their children to practice this exact type of situation.
However, I couldn’t remember any of those times being as terrible as this one, and this was my child with whom I consistently worked on behavior and calming down. We eventually made it through the shopping trip and she earned sitting back in the cart. Although I was embarrassed and angry inside, I was able to outwardly remain calm. But on the drive home and the rest of that day I continued to analyze if I had dealt with her meltdown in the best way.
Tantrums occur with every child at some point, no matter how well behaved the child or how well they have been taught. Frequency and severity of outbursts vary, but no child or parent is immune from the occasional meltdown. Here are 5 ways to deal appropriately with a meltdown.
1. Focus on describing the behavior, not discussing the issue
Once a child is escalated, they tune everything out including any of your attempts at an explanation of the circumstance or a justification of your answer or instruction. When they calm down, then you may address the situation that caused the escalation and give appropriate consequences. Instead of discussing the issue, describe what they are doing that is inappropriate using the skill of Observe and Describe. For example, instead of explaining to your son that he cannot have candy at the grocery store because it’s almost dinner, say “Right now you are talking loudly and stomping your foot.” Focusing your attention on their behavior helps them see how they are reacting negatively and helps you stay calm.
Part of focusing on their behavior is remembering to ignore “baiting” and avoid power struggles. Just as you have parenting tools, children also have tools to distract you from their negative behaviors and get the things that they want. “Baiting” and engaging you in a power struggle are common tools used by children. Baiting includes comments such as “You’re a bad mom”, “I hate you”, or “You don’t love me as much you love Tommy!” Power struggles, which can be both verbal and physical, brings to mind the image of a game of tug of war. “I’m not going to do it, and you can’t make me” is a great comment that can get you talking about how you will make them do it or what will happen if they don’t, rather than addressing their inappropriate behavior.
2. Remove the audience
Tantrums can last a lot longer if there are other people present to give attention, react to their comments, or maybe even take their side. If your child’s emotions start escalating, remove them to somewhere where they can be alone. If they refuse to take a to leave the room or take a time-out, then encourage other people to leave the situation instead. If meltdowns are a common occurrence, set-up a code word or incentives in advance to encourage other children to leave so they do not engage in the tantrum.
3. Monitor your own behavior
Start addressing a meltdown when you are calm. If you have a heightened state of emotion when addressing your child, it will escalate their emotions even further. If you find that you are unable to stay focused on describing their behavior, or you are getting mad and acting inappropriately, take a break and physically leave the presence of the child, then when you are calm again, go back to the child and describe their behavior again. Many parents expressed to me that when their child is angry they will follow them around the house, which is a common reaction because the child is seeking their attention. If you ignore the negative behavior and leave the room, they may follow you. If this happens try to calmly place them back in time-out or go in a room where you can close the door. If they become destructive, then try to at least mentally take a time-out by reading a newspaper, calling a friend who won’t mind listening to your child in the background, or something else that effectively distracts you until you can calmly address your child’s behavior again.
4. Give instructions on how they can resolve the situation
Giving an instruction over again focuses on the child’s behavior instead of the issue that started the meltdown. Once you have described their negative behavior(s), give a simple instruction, such as, “I need you to sit on your bed,” or “I need you to keep your hands to yourself.” Do not return to the original issue or consequence until your child is fully calm. Giving intermediate instructions helps you determine their level of compliance.
It can take a while, but with persistence and patience eventually the child will begin to follow your instructions, even if only partially. Once they have followed your instructions thoroughly and have shown that their body and voice is calm, you may begin to work on Correcting Behaviors.
5. Praise any compliance or good behavior, no matter how small
Praise seems like the last thing you want to do when your child is having a meltdown, but it is essential to encouraging your child to calm down quickly. When you start focusing on positive behavior they don’t need to seek your attention through negative ways. This step goes hand in hand with giving instructions. If you ask them to sit on their bed and they at least walk to their room, praise them for doing so. If they refrain from stomping their feet, even though they are still yelling, focus on how well they did calming their feet.
Occasionally children will appear frustrated when you start to praise because they are trying to be defiant, but it doesn’t last very long if you continue in a positive way. Not only does praise encourage positive behavior from your child, it also helps you to stay calm and focus on the positives in your child. I found that when I tried to find a behavior to praise during a tantrum, I took on more of a teaching role rather than a punishing role. Rather than thinking why are they doing this? or how could they say that to me?, I was trying to teach them how they could calm down. When you combine the steps, dealing with a meltdown becomes cyclical. The order does not matter, but as you describe behaviors, give small instructions, praise any compliance, and take breaks to calm yourself down or to allow your child to calm down, your child will eventually calm down. As you deal appropriately with meltdowns, over time they will become less frequent and less severe.