There’s nothing like a toddler’s tantrum or an older child’s melt down to bring a parent to her knees. It’s one of those behaviors that makes you feel inadequate and helpless, to say nothing of incompetent.
Put that tantrum in a public place—a restaurant, the grocery store, the school lobby—and you can add embarrassment, fear, and frustration to your own list of feelings. The ante is upped.
Believe it or not, tantrums are typical of children all over the world, and they look pretty much the same wherever you go. I have never heard of a child who makes it through childhood without having a least a few.
At its root, a tantrum is a result of frustration. Whether it is something the child can’t have, can’t do, can’t express, or just can’t tolerate, he is frustrated. His aspirations outweigh his ability. He wants to make all the decisions. He wants what he wants right now!
Couple that with “Lousy Local Conditions” and it’s the perfect storm. Lousy Local Conditions occur when the environment sabotages the child’s ability to be his best self. Whether he is tired or over tired, hungry, exhausted from your errands, tuckered out from too many birthday parties, too many play-dates, not enough naps, or just missing his traveling parent so much, he is spent. We all know how it feels when your resources are exhausted.
Tantrums rarely occur at convenient times or locations. And they are usually cumulative. The last straw is just the right excuse to let off steam.
Just remember, more often than not, your child did not choose his agenda. His agenda chose him. Tantrums are a part of normal development.
Here’s How to deal with tantrums (when the train has left the station!):
Mind your own emotions. While the tantrum may make you furious, your anger won’t help; it will only make it worse. The mirror neurons in a person’s brain cause him to match the emotions of the person with whom he is interacting. He will rise to your emotions. Stay calm, overly calm. It will help to bring him down as well as model that his explosion will not change your behavior or the outcome of the problem.
Keep it safe. Don’t allow the child hurt herself or anyone else. Clear the area so it is safe place and keep her from damaging her own or anyone else’s possessions. You may need to physically move your child if the tantrum is happening in a place that isn’t safe.
Stay close. The child in a tantrum feels out of control, so your presence can give her the grounding she needs. But do not interact or talk to the child. Read a magazine, look at your smart phone, but ignore the child. You may calmly say, “I will talk with you when you are all done with your tantrum (melt down).” Then just wait.
The train has left the station. Once a tantrum has begun, you cannot stop it. It has to run its course. Sometimes that means 2 minutes and sometimes it means 10. Wait it out. No distractions, no talking. The tantrum will ebb and flow until it naturally comes to its own end. Let that happen.
Avoid premature comfort. Often as a result of the parent’s own discomfort, he tries to calm the child before his feelings are fully expressed. Don’t do it. It won’t work anyway. In addition, it gives the child he message that he needs you, the parent, to make it all better, that you will remove his frustrations. That’s just not the case. He must learn to tolerate his frustrations. A big part of growing up is learning that tantrums don’t work.
The end save. You can tell when the tantrum is winding down. Then and only then can you say, “Do you need a hug?” or suggest a paradigm shift, “Let’s go outside and see if there are any squirrels.” Sometimes doing so helps a child to save face and move to a calm place.
With the older child, do a revisit. When you have some distance from the event, an hour or more after, you need to talk about what happened. “Boy, we really had a hard time in the grocery store. You were so angry at me. Can you tell me more about what was going on?” After she has the chance to explain her frustration and use language rather than a meltdown to describe how she was feeling, you can say, “You get so angry at me when I won’t buy you what you want. Is there a way we can make it easier for you when we go to the market?” And then you can add, “I can promise you that having a meltdown in the grocery store will never get you what you want.” Be sure to give her an opportunity to have the experience again, but it will be successful this time. Then praise the behavior.
When in public, your child is your priority. While it is embarrassing and you wish the earth would open and swallow you up, forget the public, and deal with your tantrumming child. Regardless of his age, get to his level, calmly and firmly state, “This behavior needs to stop or we will leave.” Since it is unlikely that this will work with a little one, be prepared to leave your shopping and immediately take your child outside. In your car or outside, wait for the tantrum/melt down to run its course. Only then will you LEAVE the scene of the crime and go home. No second chances on this one.
When in a restaurant, remove your tantrumming child immediately. You may re-enter only if the child has completely calmed down and knows that such outbursts will not be tolerated in the restaurant. Otherwise, it’s take-out for you; rice cakes for him! When you get home, be sure to give your child no attention. Food yes; attention no.
In both cases, the child will be reminded of what happened using a revisit. As soon as possible he should have a chance to have a successful experience at the grocery store or restaurant, having been reminded of what behavior is expected.
The two questions parents most want to know about tantrums and melt downs are 1) How do I deal with them, and 2) When will they stop? The first has been addressed. The answer to the second depends on you and your child. But know that, Lousy Local Conditions aside, tantrums must never work. The sooner the child realizes this reality, the sooner they will end.