The Eye of the Storm

Controlling children's meltdowns.

You're in the supermarket with your two kids and have just a few minutes to get in and out before one child's soccer game. As the group whines for dessert, you keep the kids quiet with some cookies. You warn them that having cookies now means no sweets later.

When it's time to check out, the children whine again for candy. This time you say "no," and that's when it happens. Both kids start screaming, crying and falling to the floor. You try to ignore it, but soon your children are grabbing at your ankles. The woman behind you in line shakes her head disapprovingly. What started as a minor irritation is growing into rage as you feel other shoppers questioning your parenting. Now you have your own meltdown, yelling at your children. Adding fuel to the fire, you thereby escalate your children's tantrum and create more of the embarrassment that spurred your anger.

How do you handle the discomfort of these moments? If you can't tolerate the uneasiness, you might give in and let your kids have the candy. But soon your kids will act up again because they learned that their tantrum paid off. Alternatively, you can hold firm and weather the storm to teach your children that tantrums don't work. Yet, what if the storm lasts an hour, and your kids remain upset in the car as well as at the soccer game and cannot be consoled? Or, worse, tantrums occur every time you go to the store.

When meltdowns last a long time or reoccur despite consistent limit setting, you need an alternative to traditional discipline methods. You need a way to get your kids calm during a meltdown and to understand the triggers to the meltdowns to prevent them from happening.

Controlling Your Own Temper

To parent thoughtfully, you must be able to control your own emotions. Screaming usually just intensifies children's agitation. All children have tantrums because they lack the skills to cope with challenging situations. Some children have more meltdowns due to their temperament. Expecting these problems, and having a thoughtful plan to handle them, helps to keep your emotions in check. If this sounds difficult, it is. Parenting demands a huge energy output. And, if it bothers you that other adults stare when your kid blows a gasket, remember, it's probably because the adults are remembering similar moments they experienced while raising their kids.

Calming the Storm

A crying baby can be soothed by being bounced on a lap, receiving a teddy bear or getting gently rocked in your arms.

The art of distraction can be equally effective for older kids. Here's a hypothetical scenario: Back in the supermarket where your kids were screaming because they did not get candy, you pull out their favorite small toys, and suddenly they start to play and forget about the candy. Or, you take the kids to the car and pop in their favorite CD, and once again they calm. Knowing your children's interests is an important step in distracting and calming them. Don't try to reason with screaming children. Instead, think distraction. Later when the children are calm, you can contemplate and discuss other ways to avoid meltdowns.

Changing the Triggers to Meltdowns

If your child continues to have tantrums, it pays to know what the triggers are so you can prevent the meltdowns. Try keeping a diary documenting when problematic behaviors arise, what preceded your child's breakdown and how you reacted. The diary will give you clues about what is causing the meltdowns.

Following are the most common triggers to of meltdowns:

  • Biological triggers. Do meltdowns occur when your child is hungry or tired? If so, feed your child before an outing and do not venture out when your child is exhausted.
  • Sensory triggers. Do problems happen when your child is over-stimulated by noise, lights or crowds? Or is your child bored? You may need to adjust the stimulation to meet your kid's needs, such as by limiting over-stimulating situations and giving the child things to do when he or she appears bored.
  • Demands. Does a meltdown result when your child is asked to do something like complete homework, do chores or get ready in the morning? Consider whether your child knows how to do these tasks or needs them simplified. Written rules for how to complete a task can help. When it comes to homework, kids often refuse to do it rather than admit they need help. You may need to teach your children that it is fine to ask for assistance.
  • Waiting. Do problems occur when your children do not get want they want immediately? You can make waiting easier by establishing a clear time that they will get what they want and/or lessen how long they will have to wait. In the supermarket example, perhaps clearly state what snacks the children will get and when so there are no disturbances in the market. You can also give your children activities to keep them occupied while waiting, like helping to find items on the shelves or playing with a toy.
  • Threats to self-esteem. Sometimes meltdowns occur when kids feel bad about themselves after losing a game, making a mistake or being teased. Encourage children to think differently about these situations. Teach them: "If you lose a game and don't get mad, you can win a friend because other people will like playing with you, and,mistakes are good because they help you learn." Offer incentives for when your children lose or make mistakes without getting upset so that you reward self-control rather than perfection. With regard to teasing, enable children to understand that it is the teaser who has the problem, not the child being teased.
  • Unmet needs for attention. Do tantrums occur when your children are denied attention? When children crave parental attention, arrange playtimes with your kids. In addition, children need to be taught the words to ask a parent, sibling or friend to play, rather than to do bothersome things to get attention.

In the end, your children and you will feel a lot better if you anticipate the triggers for tantrums and have a concise plan of how to prevent meltdowns. For the inevitable moments when you cannot avoid a drastic temper tantrum, realize that you can go into distraction mode to calm the situation.

Parenting is hard. However, if you tolerate the challenges of child-rearing without blaming your kids or yourself, you can appreciate the joys of helping your children grow.