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 gentle technique 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.
1. Know The Root Causes Tantrums and meltdowns often occur when your child is already done. A hungry, thirsty, tired, overwhelmed, sick, or overstimulated child is primed and ready to have a full on come apart. They are usually unable to even identify these underlying causes, let alone express them well enough to ask for help. Your job is to be aware of your child's tolerance for time without snacks, sleep, water, quiet, and down time and then do what you can to mitigate these. In addition, give your child a vocabulary that lets them ask for help. "I'm getting thirsty and that makes me feel grumpy. Let's get some water before we have a melt down!" "Are you ready for a snack? I know I am! Let's make sure we don't get hangry!" (explain the funny word). Keep your tone of voice cheerful and the mood happy.
2. Take A Breather. If, in spite of your best prevention techniques, there is a tantrum try using a cold, damp washcloth to gently wipe your child's face, hands, or neck. In addition, moderate your voice. Whispering often works if you must communicate, but silence is helpful. Find a quiet, private spot and suggest that you and your child "take a breather". Stay with your child. While sitting near or holding your child begin to breathe in and out in a This is not about isolating an already distressed child. This is about working with them to regulate the overpowering avalanche of raw emotion they are experiencing. Tell the child quietly and firmly that you will listen to what they want to say when they are ready to speak without screaming. Remain in control of yourself.
Set a timer for two or three minutes and tell the child that when the timer goes off, you think they will feel better and you all can work together to fix whatever is wrong. Do. Not. Offer. A. Reward. Or a bribe. 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. Then ask them what they think was wrong and what you can do together to fix it now and keep from getting so worked up in the future.
Have A Plan. Later on, perhaps the next day, remind your child that there are ways to express themselves without having a distressing scene. Tell them that the next time they feel themselves getting upset they can take a deep breath and say tell you calmly what is wrong. Practice this with them. Tell them that you want to help them to learn other ways to tell you that they are frustrated.
Empathize. 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 leaders. This means you teach and guide. Try to remember what it was like to be a child.
Give Your Child A Voice Another way to help prevent tantrum behavior is to give your child control over a few things. Things like 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.
BUT young children are easily overwhelmed. Choices such as "sneakers or cowboy boots?" "Broccoli or green beans?" "Sauce or butter on your noodles?" "Tell me when you see enough mac n cheese on your plate!" Simple, straightforward choices between two equally balanced things. This is how children gain a bit of control over their own bodies and lives.
Tantrums Do Not Indicate Failure on your part or your child's. Your child is probably completely fine in every way, and you are probably doing a very good job raising your child. A tantrum is not a failure, it is something that happens some times. Depending on your response, you can reduce the number and the duration of these outbursts.
One last thought...when your child explodes in frustration, it is not a personal attack on you. You are not a victim of your child's emotional display. You are your child's support team. Do not allow victim mentality to drive your response to your child when they are having a meltdown. This is counter productive because it emphasizes your feelings over what your child is experiencing. Remember that your child's need for safety is greater than your need for peace and quiet. Even though you really want peace and quiet.
Handled with care, calm, and consistency, your child can grow beyond tantrums and the havoc they create in your life.