Managing meltdowns: Helping your child cope with tantrums

By Lorenzo Azzi, Ph.D. 

We’ve all witnessed a child (sometimes our own) in full meltdown mode, as well as the tantrum that inevitably accompanies it. It can happen anywhere — like the grocery store checkout line — at any time. All you really want to do is quickly end the fit so your child calms down.

As a clinical psychologist specializing in infant and toddler social emotional development, I hear firsthand from parents puzzled as to how to respond to tantrums — especially given how much misinformation there is about why children throw fits.

What is a tantrum?

There is a huge misconception that tantrums are your toddler’s attempt to manipulate you into getting what he or she wants. While this might be true in a very small number of cases, I can assure you that developmentally, your toddler isn’t cognitively sophisticated enough to intentionally manipulate you.

A tantrum is really the behavioral manifestation of your child’s emotional response or feelings. That feeling might be genuinely sad, confused, angry or scared and he’s crying and throwing a fit because the intensity of that feeling overwhelms his still unsophisticated capacity to cope with big feelings.

Over time, children develop the capacity to regulate their emotions and we as parents can help teach children how to regulate emotions in a positive way. Believe it or not, tantrums are a perfect opportunity to foster this learning process with your child.

What should you do when your child is having a tantrum?

When you have the mindset that your toddler is doing this to manipulate you, this likely leads to anger and to punitive measures like spanking, ignoring or taking something away; none of which are helpful to your child or teaches appropriate ways of managing “big feelings.”

Instead, if your toddler has a feeling that he doesn’t know how to deal with on his own, start by trying to understand what feeling he is experiencing and help him to regulate that negative feeling using the following steps:

Step 1: Be empathetic and calm

Show empathy and calmly demonstrate that you know how your child feels. Say, “I can see you are really sad right now,” or “That made you really angry when your sister knocked down your tower of blocks.”

As you are voicing empathy, just sit with your toddler. Hold him, gently rock him or rub his back and just sit with him in a calm, reassuring way.

Step 2: Practice self-calming skills

When you can tell your toddler is starting to calm down and has regained some control, THEN you can help teach him how to deal with his emotions. Try telling him, “When we get upset we can breathe in together” or “Let’s count to 10 together.”

Using the example of his sister knocking over his blocks, calmly explain to him, “I can tell that made you really upset. One thing we can do when that happens next time is build a different one, or build it again.”

Also, give him some words to use to express himself such as; “You didn’t like it when she knocked your tower down.”

When a child has the repeated experience of a parent or caregiver being able to sit with them and calm them when they have a negative emotion, they learn very quickly, even at a very young age, that they can recover from feeling bad and this important person can help them achieve this. Toddlers who have internalized this feeling often experience fewer and much shorter tantrums.

In fact, if you consistently practice these steps with your child, they will quickly learn to practice self-calming skills and can deal with their emotions in a positive way.

From toddler to teen

As an added benefit, helping your toddler cope with tantrums at a young age can have a far-reaching impact on your relationship with your child, even into their teenage years.

Case in point: If you ignore your child when he throws a tantrum, or you send him to his room, the message you send is that “when you have a problem I can’t be with you and can’t tolerate you; you need to be on your own.”

Conversely, if you practice the steps above, your child’s brain becomes hardwired that you are the person they can come to when they are having a problem, and that you will be calm and sensitive — no matter what their age or problem.

Lorenzo Azzi, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in infant and toddler social emotional development at Southwest Human Development, where he provides consultation to families via the Nurse Family Partnership program, Early Head Start program and the Good Fit Counseling Center — Arizona’s only mental health center for young children. He also serves as faculty for the prestigious Harris Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Training Program.

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4 responses to “Managing meltdowns: Helping your child cope with tantrums

  1. Thank you for this. It’s so important, and so true. I try to remind myself that my child is acting like a child because she IS a child. My role is to accept her feelings, and model the kind of resolution-seeking I want her to have in her skill set down the road. I appreciate you emphasizing the importance of not abandoning a child who is emotionally distraught. We can limit behaviors and still empathize with real feelings.

  2. Okay, I’m totally on board with this and have been already trying some things with my 20 month old who has a limited vocabulary. He has a biting and pinching problem. That’s how he lashes out. My approach has been to first attend to the person hurt to show empathy for them and then to say, “We don’t bite. Biting hurts!” in a stern voice. After that, he gets a time out to calm down for 1 minute and then goes and hugs the person he hurt. It doesn’t seem to be working. How long does this process usually take? Any more suggestions? My husband is about to resort to flicking his cheek or biting him back once (that’s what my sister did with her kids-I don’t agree).

  3. Hi Laura. This is Dr. Azzi. I’m sorry you guys are having such a difficult time with the biting. This is not an uncommon issue for toddlers and one that is highly distressing for parents for obvious reasons. I really like your approach of showing empathy to the “bitee.” It’s not a “quick fix” and I wouldn’t expect this to have instantaneous results. I can also certainly understand your husband’s inclination to try a more extreme approach however those kinds of interventions come with a huge risk of the toddler learning the wrong message through unintentional “modeling” (e.g. “see, biting and flicking cheeks must be ok things to do when we are mad because even my father does it”).

    A quick note on the use of time outs. While our society has adopted a belief that time outs are “cure-alls” for any kid at any age with any issue, they are not. First, most 20 month-old babies don’t even understand what they are in T.O. for. Second, like I mentioned in my blog, a T.O. does nothing to help a child learn a more appropriate choice (like your empathy-teaching approach). I would consider sticking with your empathy approach for the “bitee” and encourage your toddler to give that hug that you mentioned immediately afterward instead of following a one-minute T.O., which likely prevents your toddler from making the association between the bite and the hug anyway. The other thing I might consider is really trying to learn his early, more subtle cues and anticipate when your toddler might be getting frustrated enough to bite. Those moments could present as excellent opportunities for you to teach your child more appropriate alternatives for him to express his displeasure or frustration.

    If your child continues to struggle with this issue, I would recommend contacting a mental health professional who has specific training and experience in working with babies/toddlers to help you guys work through this with your little guy. Hope that helps—– LA

  4. Pingback: Banish biting behavior | Babies to Big Kids

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