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What to Do About Tantrums and Emotional Meltdowns

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Dealing with your kids’ tantrums and mood swings can be one of parenting’s most frustrating challenges. From public meltdowns to prolonged fits, these extreme outbursts of emotion have the capacity to provoke extreme reactions in us.

Methods that are effective in dealing with the child’s natural expressions of anger or frustration don’t work in this intense emotional situation. At these times, parents find it difficult to get through to their children and help them cope with their feelings.

To help a kid having a temper tantrum or meltdown, the parent needs to understand what the child is experiencing. They need to realize that, presently, this very young person is completely overwhelmed by emotions. She cannot be reached. For her, the outside world is shut out and she is experiencing her own internal hell. The kid having a meltdown has no understanding of himself and of what he is feeling. He feels fragmented and out of control.

The methods for dealing with temper tantrums and meltdowns are different than those for dealing with normal anger and frustration. Appealing to the child with logic or threatening consequences is unproductive. The following suggestions are helpful for reaching and affecting the child who is in this distressful state:

Before:

It is advisable be proactive and stop your child’s crying before it escalates into a full-blown tantrum or meltdown. It is often possible to anticipate a temper tantrum or meltdown coming on by recognizing the behaviors that typically precede it. You can then head off the outburst with a distraction. You can distract your child by changing the subject, the activity or the environment that is causing her distress.

There is one type of distraction that adults must not offer children. If your child is having a tantrum because something has been denied her, you must not give in by offering her what has been denied. Doing this teaches children that they can manipulate people to get what they want by throwing a tantrum.

During:

When a tantrum or meltdown does occur, especially in public, all parents experience humiliation. They are embarrassed and fear that onlookers will regard them as faulty parents. However, do not let your self-consciousness or self-attacks affect your actions. Your focus should not be on worrying about how you are being seen, but on tending to the agony that your child is going through.

When your kid is in this state, do not send her to her room. Isolation is not a constructive solution because she is not being helped to deal with her feelings. During time alone, children in this distraught state are often tortured by angry fantasies. Therefore, it is especially valuable for you to make a point of being with your child in order to assist the her in coping with her powerful emotions.
When your child is having a tantrum or meltdown, you can sit with her as she goes through the tantrum. Do not try to talk your child out of her feelings, do not try to coax her or appeal to her logic. Do not get angry or offer a response that will fuel her anger and frustration. Let your child know that even though she feels like she is coming apart at the seams, you are comfortable with her emotions. You can communicate this by reflecting what your child is feeling:
“You’re really angry right now. That’s okay. I’ll just sit here with you while you feel it. I’ll sit here with you until it is over.”
“You’re so sad right now and you don’t even know why. It’s okay. I’ll stay with you until it passes. Don’t worry, we have plenty of time.”

The worst thing that adults can do when a child is having a tantrum or meltdown is become frustrated and agitated themselves; this will only heighten their child’s tension. By maintaining a calm, understanding and patient attitude, you create a stabilizing presence that will hold the child emotionally. The child who fears that she will fragment will feel contained by the adult and her agitation will subside. In cases where your child is feeling intense anger, you can hold her gently but firmly, allowing her to vent her rage.

The child having a temper tantrum or meltdown experiences the entire world as being overwhelmed by the emotions that she is feeling. By showing the child that you are not only not overwhelmed, but not threatened or upset by these emotions, you are offering your child a way out of a state that she perceives as inescapable.

After:

After the emotional period has passed, it is possible to have a calm discussion with your child about what happened. If your kid is old enough, talk about what preceded the outburst. Did something make him mad? Did something frustrate him? Did he feel sad? Did he feel disappointed?

Can your child describe what he was feeling during the tantrum or meltdown? Be sure to talk about how you felt. Tell him that it made you sad to see him feeling so bad. Say that even though his feelings were scary to him, they weren’t to you. Relay that you were glad to be there for him.

Then talk about the future, and what he can do the next time that he feels like this. What triggers can he be on the look out for? What did he learn about himself this time that might help him the next time he feels this way? Explain that even though, during a tantrum or meltdown, it feels like the bad feeling will last forever, it will end. Point out that it is over now. Helping him gain perspective is valuable.

As your child grows older, he will no longer need an adult to contain his intense emotions. Your child will learn from your response to his tantrums that strong feelings are not overwhelming and can indeed be managed.

2 comments

  1. you talk about how to deal with tantrums and mood swings—-are you going to go deeper with intervention strategies?

  2. Thank you for this article. Many others I’ve read are aimed at toddler tantrums and suggest ignoring/ leaving your child. But for my 5 year old, that escalates the problem. Every word here makes sense to me and I feel I have positive strategies to support her and help her gain control. Thank you. Much appreciated x

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