You didn't see it coming...or maybe you did and all you could do is hang on and wait for it to pass. Before you begin to yell, "Calm down!" until you are hoarse, read on for a few tips that might help when you and your child are at the end of your collective tether.
Meltdowns can begin in the blink of an eye and over issues that seem so small it hardly seems possible that this is the response. All the pent up frustration inside your child is being vented in one enormous outburst and you feel helpless. You may even be afraid that something is "wrong" with your child. Or with you...
Take a deep breath and understand that this kind of emotional display is fairly common in young children. I know that doesn't make it any easier to deal with, but sometimes it is nice to know that you are not alone when you are coping with an issue that causes such upheaval. You are not the only parent who has seen their beautiful child become a raging wildebeest in the blink of an eye.
Lowering the number and the severity of these outbursts is possible with a bit of observation and planning ahead. Meltdowns tend to follow patterns that can be recognized with a bit of attention to detail. In addition to this good news, the duration can be shortened with some techniques that you and your child can learn to use. Let's talk first about how to head off these moments of frenzy.
Early childhood teachers use a tool called an "ABC Chart". In this case ABC stands for: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. On an ABC chart, you record the date. After that, reflect on what happened before the meltdown began. This is the antecedent. Was the child's sibling teasing? Was there loud music? When was the last time they ate? Did they sleep? Reflect carefully. The cause is often pretty obvious, but not always. After the antecedent, comes behavior. Record what is said,what is done. This may give some clues. Be as detailed as possible. Now comes the important part: The Consequence. Consequences are not always bad. The consequence is what happens as a result. Are you, in some way, rewarding the tantrum? Do you give the child what they are screaming for in the moment? Do you offer a bribe or a treat if they will stop? This is the consequence. Be truly honest with yourself. What was the real consequence of the child's behavior? Did they get a reward? It is a common response for parents.
Once you have identified some patterns, and you almost certainly will, you can work toward preventing future outbursts by giving your child a heads up about an upcoming event that may be upsetting. You can also make sure that your child is not hungry or overtired. Possibly you need to adjust meal and sleep schedules. Work to lower conditions that trigger the outbursts.
During a tantrum, try getting a cold, damp washcloth and wiping the child's face, hands or neck with it. In addition, no matter how loud the child gets, you must moderate your voice. Whispering in your child's ear often works. Then, picking the child up if necessary, take them to a quiet, private spot. Tell the child quietly and firmly that you will listen to what they want to say, but they must become quiet. Stay with them. Remain in control of yourself. Repeat that you can not help them until the screaming has stopped. Set a timer for two or three minutes and tell the child that you expect them to stop their tantrum by the time the timer goes off. Do. Not. Offer. A. Reward.Once the scene is over, your child is probably tired. Give water and offer food (not a treat) and allow your child to become fully quiet. Wait awhile, then remind the child that there are ways to express their anger without having a distressing scene. Tell them that the next time they feel themselves getting upset they can take a deep breath and say it calmly. Tell them also that you expect them to learn other ways to tell you that they are frustrated and that you will help them with that. Discuss a set consequence for tantrums that your child understands and you are able to follow through on. Do not issue idle threats. These erode your credibility and your child's security. Remember that your child may be embarrassed or sorry, but doesn't know how to express it. Have some grace. They are learning how to live in a world they have very limited control over. Children are learners. Parents are teachers.
Another way to help is to give your child control over a few things such as what goes on their plate at dinner, what clothes they wear, (within the dress code for school or group care), and other things of that nature. When you can allow them a choice, offer a choice. Remember that the long term goal is to raise an independent adult. This begins with small choices.
I have included a printable ABC chart below. You or a friend may find it useful.