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Tantrums and Meltdowns

By Parent Educator Karen Deerwester, of Family Time, Inc.

Did you ever wake up and notice that, by some weird childhood magic, your sweet adorable child has been inexplicably changed into a fiery bug-eyed terror? Welcome to REAL Parenting! Tantrums are unavoidable - children MUST have them. Children are learning everyday how to control their emotions, how to decipher how this crazy world works, and how to find a comfortable place to be themselves.

Tantrums are serious business. Children are notorious for getting stuck on one thing. There's nothing you can do - it's a cognitive thing. And, for possibly the very first time, you can not make your child happy or fix the problem. It's HIS tantrum and all you can do is stand by and watch. You can not stop it once it's started. You can only keep yourself from getting sucked into the tantrum tornado and be there to gather the pieces when it blows over. This, of course, takes practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice your peaceful parent attitude until you can call upon at will whether you are in the check-out line at the grocery store or driving in rush hour traffic.

Here are four kinds of childhood tantrums you are likely to face in your parenting career:

Tantrum #1: the Unpredictable/Irrational Tantrum
As in "I want my blue cup not the red cup" as your child throws the cup filled with juice on the floor. What should you do? Next time, you can ask in advance for your child's choice. But in this moment - do not enter the power struggle! YOU WILL LOSE - guaranteed! You will lose because you have a life and your child does not - your child can lock down in a standoff forever. So, don't PUFF yourself up and start giving ultimatums to your child. Breathe the deepest breath you can muster. And state the "obvious" - "ok I guess you don't want your juice if you're throwing the cup". Your child will now fall to pieces in another tantrum because she obviously does not like the way this is turning out. It's OK - stand back and let it pass. When the tantrum is over, revisit what you'd like to do. Do you want her to help you wipe the floor so she can get another cup of juice in the cup of her choice? Do you want her to tell you in a calm voice what she would like? This is the hard part - before you can teach your child, you must know what you want. Only then can you tell your child what you expect of her.

Tantrum #2: The Basic Needs Tantrum
Think food, rest, clothing! Many tantrums come from fast-paced, overscheduled days. Read the situation using all your hard-earned parental wisdom, and start moving towards fixing the problem. Bring in ample doses of healthy food. Get your child into well-worn clothes that aren't pinching, squeezing, or otherwise subjecting him to annoying discomfort. Or, get him to a soft, quiet place where he can regroup and/or sleep. If he is over-tired, this means prepare yourself for one last tantrum as he opens his emotional steam valve and unleashes his pent-up exhaustion. Once again, it's ok that your child feels and expresses unattractive emotions. In time, he will learn how to express negative and positive emotions with mature gracefulness.

Tantrum #3: The I'm Bored/Attention Getting Tantrum
The first rule of thumb when a child is acting out to get your attention is to do as little as possible, since any response is likely to reinforce the behavior and encourage the child to do it again. Yes but…how do you ignore escalating behavior specifically chosen to drive you crazy? Try to ignore the tantrum but not the child. Talk (using as few words as possible) past the tantrum to the child. As in, "When you're finished screaming at me, you can tell me what you want calmly" or "I know you want that toy but so-and-so is not finished with it". Now stand by and say no more, ignoring the tantrum. You have just thrown your child a lifeline of how to move forward. Sometimes words won't work at all. Simply walk over to your child and remove her from the top of the coffee table and let her finish the tantrum safely on the floor.

Tantrum #4: Stressed-Out/Grumpiness Tantrum
Think of holidays, vacations, birthdays, and special occasions, all those times when the normal routine goes out the window and your expectations go higher and higher. Something's got to blow! You can try to avoid these tantrums by checking your expectations - be sure your expectations are really about your child's behavior and not about what someone else might think. For example - what will it take to arrive cheerfully at your in-laws after 2 flights and a 2 hour layover in Atlanta? What is beyond reasonable to expect of your child?

Some events, like divorce and even certain news stories are not child-friendly. In these situations, you are your child's buffer to the world. Listen closely when your child tries to express stressful feelings and give her the skills to manage what she can. Then give her a "way out" if a situation gets overwhelming. Always be ready to find a safe place for your child to regroup - time alone in a quiet room, time to sit side-by-side on some swings, or time in your lap. You can help children understand their grumpiness and learn to be adaptive in less than perfect situations. But again, it's up to you to teach what you want them to learn.

Oh, I forget, there is one other kind of tantrum - It's the Mom Tantrum! And the solution is …Do it mom's way. Always do it mom's way! Good Luck!

Listen to Karen's new CD, Parenting Quick Tips for Young Children, and get useful tips on Tantrums and many other parenting dilemmas whenever you need extra advice and support!

Also see:
Ask Karen your parenting questions
Teaching positive thinking
In a material world, children must learn values at home
What are your words saying?

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