Top 10 ways to handle temper tantrums and meltdowns

They’re ugly, loud, and embarrassing, especially in public places. We get lots of questions about how to handle temper tantrums and meltdowns. Tantrums and meltdowns are some of the most challenging problems for parents of preschoolers. So, how do you handle them?

First, let’s discuss how temper tantrums and meltdowns differ.

Temper Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

Temper tantrums are milder outbursts and usually happen when a child wants something or no one is paying attention to her. For example; she may want a toy at the store. Or, she might want to avoid doing something, such as putting on her shoes. These frustrations trigger an emotion of anger and therefore cause an emotional outburst.

Key characteristics of a temper tantrum you should look out for:

  • Tantrums usually have a purpose.
  • The child has some control over his or her behavior. She’s able to stop if she wants to.
  • Attention—even negative attention—feeds a tantrum. Often, ignoring a child’s behavior during a tantrum will cause the child to stop.

 

On the other hand, meltdowns happen when a child is completely overwhelmed by emotions or his environment. He might be exhausted from lack of sleep. Or he might be overly stimulated by all the sights and sounds of a certain place, such as an amusement park. Here are some key characteristics of a meltdown:

  • Meltdowns don’t seem to have a clear purpose.
  • The child cannot control his or her behavior.
  • The meltdown isn’t likely to stop when the child gets what he wants.

 

All children can have meltdowns. But children with certain developmental disorders usually have meltdowns more often. If your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), then you’re probably a frequent observer of the ASD meltdown. This is because children with ASD have difficulty talking about and regulating their emotions. They can also become overwhelmed by unfamiliar or chaotic surroundings. Psychologist Mark Hutten (www.MyAspergersChild.org) offers some tips for parents of ASD children for handling meltdowns.

Children with sensory processing disorders may also experience frequent meltdowns because they have trouble processing sensory information. According to occupational therapist Angie Voss (@UnderstandSPD), sensory meltdowns are especially challenging. Voss offers some good tips for understanding these sensory meltdowns.

So, how do you handle temper tantrums and meltdowns?

Now that you know the difference between the two, let’s discuss how to handle temper tantrums and meltdowns. Handling tantrums typically requires different strategies than meltdowns.

Here are 10 tips for handling temper tantrums.

Before a tantrum:

  1. Find out what causes your child’s tantrums.

Sometimes this is easy to figure out, such as when your child wants that new toy at the store. Other times, the tantrum’s real purpose may be hidden, such as when your child just wants your attention.

The National Association of School Psychologists identifies four common purposes for tantrums:

  • to express frustration with a task, such as tying shoes or using scissors
  • to gain attention from parents or others
  • to get something, such as a toy or food
  • to avoid something, such as leaving the park or putting up toys

If you’re not sure why your child has tantrums, keep a weekly log. Note what is happening around your child before her tantrums begin. After a week or two, you will likely see a pattern emerge.

Then, think of ways to help your child manage these regular events better. For example, if your pattern involves frequent tantrums before bath time, then make sure you aren’t always interrupting a fun activity for bath time. You might direct your child to a quiet, calming activity (such as reading books or listening to music) so she isn’t actively playing when you announce bath time.

  1. Pay attention to signs of escalating emotions BEFORE a tantrum starts.

If you know what triggers your child’s tantrums, you can look for signs of an impending fit. Then, you can defuse the situation before it gets out of control. For example, your child might have tantrums when she’s faced with a sudden change—such as leaving the park. If so, give her plenty of warning before it’s time to leave. Say, “We have to leave in a few minutes. Do you want to swing some more before we leave?”

At the beginning of a tantrum:

  1. Calmly acknowledge what your child needs or wants.

The key here is to show understanding. For example, you can say, “I see that you want that cookie. But we’re going to eat dinner first.”

  1. Help her see that she won’t get what she wants by throwing a fit.

For example, say, “We don’t get what we want by yelling and crying. You can ask me nicely for a cookie after we eat dinner.”

  1. Try to distract your child to head off the tantrum.

You can distract her by changing the subject or taking her out of her surroundings. If you’re in a public place, this is a good way to try and head off a tantrum. But if distraction doesn’t work, you may have to take your child out of the public place. This might mean abandoning a loaded shopping cart at the grocery store—which isn’t ideal. But keep in mind that you’re showing your child that you mean business—and that tantrums won’t be tolerated.

In the middle of a tantrum:

  1. Don’t try to reason with her. Instead, ignore the behavior.

A child in the midst of a tantrum cannot reason with anyone. Don’t give her any attention and avoid eye contact. Attention only feeds the tantrum and causes it to escalate.

  1. Step in only if necessary and don’t lose control of your own emotions.

Sometimes, ignoring your child’s tantrum just isn’t possible. You’ll need to step in if the tantrum allows your child to get what she wants or places her in danger. You can give your child a time-out by directing her to a quiet, neutral place so she can calm down. Make sure the time-out place doesn’t provide opportunities for play or other fun activities. Once your child has been quiet and calm for about 15 seconds, you can allow her to return to an activity or task.

When stepping in, don’t lose control of your own emotions and react in anger. Reacting in anger gives your child attention. It also tells her that it’s okay to lose control of your emotions. She needs to learn how to regulate her emotions so she doesn’t lose control.

  1. Above all, don’t give in. By giving in to your child’s demands, you are teaching her that tantrums work. This is a learned behavior. It can be very difficult to redirect a child once she’s learned this strategy.

After a tantrum:

  1. Briefly praise your child for calming herself. This type of attention reinforces the positive behavior of regulating her emotions and calming herself. But if the cause of the tantrum was to avoid a task, make sure your child still completes the task.
  1. Later, find ways to talk with your child about the feelings of anger and frustration. Help her manage these strong feelings. You can do this by modeling some strategies, such as taking deep breaths, counting, and using words to tell how you feel. For example, when you’re feeling frustrated, say to your child, “I’m getting so frustrated! I need to count to 10 so I can calm down. Can you help me?”

 

Here are 10 tips for handling meltdowns.

Before a meltdown:

  1. Understand what triggers meltdowns in your child.

Triggers can be sensory issues, such as too much stimulation from loud and chaotic surroundings. Triggers can also include fatigue, frustration with a challenging task, sudden changes in routines, and anxiety. Identifying these triggers can be especially helpful for parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, according to psychologist Mark Hutten. If you aren’t sure what triggers your child’s meltdowns, keep a weekly log. Note what is happening around your child before his meltdowns begin.

  1. Once you recognize a trigger, find ways to avoid or manage the trigger. For example, your child might become over-stimulated when shopping. If so, break a long shopping trip into shorter trips. Or your child might have meltdowns when common routines are suddenly changed. If so, give your child plenty of warning before a routine changes. If he has a favorite toy or comfort object, let him bring it with him.

 

During a meltdown:

  1. Help your child find a safe, quiet place where he can calm down. If it’s a sensory meltdown, eliminate or decrease the trigger. For example, if your child’s triggers are very bright lights and loud noises, take him to a quiet place with dimmed lights.
  1. Stay with your child during the meltdown. Provide a calm, reassuring presence.
  1. Don’t talk to your child too much. This can provide additional stimulation, which can prolong the meltdown.
  1. If your child is having a sensory meltdown, you may not want to touch or hold him. Follow your child’s signals to determine whether he wants to be touched or not. If holding or touching him causes him stress, then just sit quietly near him.
  1. Above all, don’t punish your child for having a meltdown. He isn’t able to control his behavior during a meltdown.

 

After a meltdown:

  1. Later, find ways to talk with your child about feelings and how to manage them. Give him the words to express his feelings. You can also model how to express feelings yourself. When you have a strong feeling (such as fear or nervousness), name your feeling and tell why you feel this way. Then model taking an action to regulate your feeling. For example, say, “I’m feeling a little scared and anxious because everyone is moving so fast. I need to stop and take some deep breaths.”
  1. If your child has frequent meltdowns, make sure he has a safe, quiet place he can escape to. This can be a play tent filled with blankets and pillows. Or it can be a quiet corner of his room with a bean bag or other soft furniture.
  1. Many times, meltdowns occur as a natural reaction to our hectic lives. If you suspect this is the case, find ways to slow down. Make time for easy transitions during your child’s day. For example, give your child plenty of time in the morning to get ready before leaving the house. Keep a reasonable daily schedule. Don’t try to pack too much activity into one day.

 

Give your child the tools to handle emotions

You might notice some similarities between the strategies for how to handle temper tantrums and meltdowns. Both involve regulating emotions, an important social and emotional skill for young children. Learning social and emotional skills—like regulating emotions and controlling your own behavior—are an integral part of the Dilly’s Tree House at-home learning program. Each box includes a special story book that helps your child develop skills like identifying and regulating emotions, sharing, taking turns, and listening.

One way to help your child learn self-control is by talking about feelings. Reading books about feelings is a great way to start. Here are some of our suggestions:

 

We’ll share more tips on helping your child regulate his emotions in future blogs at Dilly’s Tree House. Be sure to check back often!

When to seek medical help

Sometimes, an undiagnosed medical condition or developmental disorder—such as autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder—can cause frequent tantrums and meltdowns. If you suspect your child might have a developmental disorder or other medical condition, be sure to ask your pediatrician for an assessment. Your child’s doctor can also refer you to a mental health professional specializing in children, such as a behavioral therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

 

Do you have some additional tips for how to handle temper tantrums and meltdowns? If so, please share them in the Comments section below.

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Susan Light
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Susan Light is a mom, a grandmother, a journalist, and an educational expert. She is a senior editor at Rainbow Educational Concepts, and she blogs regularly for Dilly’s Tree House. Susan focuses on research-based topics for parents of preschoolers and ways to help young children get ready for kindergarten.

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