Children are beautiful, frustrating little creatures. We love them with all of our hearts, but they are often the source of difficulty too. Children have trouble coping sometimes, and that results in temper tantrums at times. Parents, on the other hand, find it challenging to overcome these temper tantrums. It is sometimes a vicious cycle. The more children rail against whatever is happening to them; the more parents get overwhelmed. Overwhelmed parents and melting down children can create a powder keg of emotions.
Learning to cope with your child’s tantrums often begins with understanding where the tantrum began. Children are new to navigating the world, and they are not always emotionally equipped to do so. This means that when things go wrong emotionally, a meltdown is often on the way. Here are some common triggers and how you might help your child cope with them.
Sometimes your child is simply overstimulated. Too much happening in their environment can be difficult for your child to handle. When this happens, they often begin to meltdown. Requests for changes in scenery, new toys, or other wants and needs are often impossible to meet. For a child, they do not know how to handle one more thing that is going wrong. They have too many things happening already, and what they want is missing. When this happens, try to reduce the stimulation around them. Sometimes, you cannot reduce the stimulants they are experiencing, but other times you can. Even a trip to Target can feel overstimulating to a small child. The store’s overhead lights, sounds from the electronics department, bright colors on the toys and walls, and busy scenery can be too much for them to take in. They want all of the things that they see. They do not understand why all of these things are off-limits to them. Grocery stores may seem less exciting, but if you take your child when they are hungry or tired, internal things are happening as well. Minimize the stimulation when you can. Take your child when they are well-rested and not hungry. Of course, this is not always possible, but you should do your best to make their trips as uneventful as can be.
Understimulated children also have trouble coping with their situations. Children who are asked to sit silently in quiet rooms with nothing to occupy their attention cannot do so either. This inability is why doctors and dental offices tend to have books, toys, or play areas for children. They are not good at doing nothing. Neither are we. Our attention is captured by magazines, books, and televisions in these offices as well. Next time you are going to a doctor’s office without a television, leave your phone in the car and ignore the books and magazines. How long does it take you to begin to get impatient and bored? Children’s attention spans are no longer than ours. When you know that you will be attending an event or service that requires children to be silent, and there is no option other than to keep them with you, take something to stimulate them. They will not feel the need to talk or interrupt you frequently. Books, crayons and coloring books, and other quiet toys might be enough to occupy them so that they do not meltdown. Of course, sometimes the toy you bring will not satisfy their needs, but being prepared with one or two distractions can prevent a tantrum from taking over when your child is understimulated.
Out of Control
When your toddler is learning to care for him or herself, control is often a significant factor in emotional distress. Sometimes your toddler will want to “do it myself” or wear a particular outfit. They think that because they are growing up, they can make all decisions themselves. When none of the decisions are theirs, there is often a meltdown on the horizon. While you cannot leave every decision up to your child, you can start to let them make some of the decisions themselves. For example, in the morning, choose two outfits for your child. Let them pick which one they want to wear. Do the same at dinner. Rather than letting them pick their meals, give them options for two sides that they can choose between. “We are having chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner. Would you also like green beans or apple slices?” Your child can choose between these two items only. Though they may want chicken nuggets, french fries, and macaroni and cheese, these items are not on the menu.
Sometimes it’s not overstimulation as much as they are overwhelmed. Feeling too many emotions or a lack of emotional control can trigger a tantrum. Emotionally overstimulated children may not appear to have too many outside stimuli. However, being sad, angry, frustrated, and excited at once is too much on a child’s brain. When they do not have the “words” to use, rather than biting or melting down, and we keep telling them to use those words, they appear to lose their minds. When this happens, you will need to demonstrate what this means rather than giving unclear commands to use their words. “Timmy, I know you are frustrated. Instead of throwing something when Carissa makes you angry, you should tell her that you do not like her behavior. Say, ‘Carissa, it makes me angry when you take my favorite toy.’” Timmy is likely frustrated and does not know what to do, but giving him vague clues does not help.
The above advice might be stellar under the best circumstances, but what about when it does not work? Your children are not always going to respond to removing stimuli, adding stimuli, giving choices, or teaching expression. Sometimes, toddlers are just going to meltdown. What then? How do we cope when nothing else will work?
Step 1: Let It Go
That is not just an earworm from Frozen. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for you and your kids is to let them have the tantrum. Walk away and let them cry themselves out. If you are in the car, try to tune them out. Do not bust their eardrums with music, but try to put on some soothing music and let them cry it out. If you are at home, make sure they cannot hurt themselves and let them have their fill of themselves. Don’t give in or give up, but let the tantrum work its way out. You cannot control another human, even if you created them.
Step 2: Remove Yourself
When you are angry at your child, think about why you are angry. How will you react if you keep standing there trying to prevent this tantrum or try to force it to end? Are you yelling at a toddler already melting down? That is not going to help either of you. Walk away. As I stated above, don’t leave them in a situation where they could get hurt, but remove yourself from the equation until you can both calm down.
Step 3: Count to Ten
This step is less about the task and more about doing something small that centers you. Counting to ten, visualization, grounding, or other techniques can all work here. Count to ten to regain your composure. If that is not helpful for you, try visualization. Think about a calming place such as the ocean, mountains, or other retreats. Take slow deep breaths to return your heart rate to normal. Grounding is similar, but it relies on your senses. This technique asks that you identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you taste. You can use these in any number combination, but they bring you back to the present. This technique is best used when you are also having trouble focusing. If you feel you are melting down, this technique will help.
Step 4: Evaluate
Why are they melting down? Is it related to something you did or said? If so, was there something else you could have said or done? Sometimes, the only alternative is one that is unacceptable. For instance, if you are in a grocery store and your toddler melts down because you refused to buy them that pretty bottle of wine, well, good for you, mom or dad. You cannot change that outcome. However, if they are melting down because they wanted to wear the Curious George tee shirt to church, is it really something to fight about? Sure, you want them to understand dress codes, but toddlers do not know a dress shirt from a canoe. They just want to wear the shirt they like. This may not be the best time for that lesson.
Step 5: Talk to Your Child
Once you have both calmed down, talk to your toddler or child. If they are too old for tantrums, let them know that they have the skills to cope and let them know what they can do to improve. Let them also know what they did well. It might just be that they were able to recover quickly. Knowing that they are not a complete failure can often help children open up to listening and gaining new skills. You are your child’s guide. Let them know what you did to calm down. It is okay to let them know that they can be angry or sad and that you are not upset with their emotions. You are simply upset by their behavior.
It is not your place to stop all tantrums. However, you should know what you can do to minimize them and possibly ward them off in the future. You should also work with your child after the tantrum to improve their coping skills. You are learning to cope too. Let them know when you are struggling. It will make it easier when they are too.