Most meltdowns usually stem from a loss of something (control, a physical item, fairness, loss of how they thought something would happen, etc). To a child, these losses can feel like “the end of the world.” Children often have not quite yet developed the skills to contain their disappointment/upset feelings. Therefore, they act those feelings out through crying, yelling, and tantruming.
Teach your child how to calm down and move on through these general steps:
- Get Their Attention
- Confident Role Modeling
- Choice Distractions
- Taking a break
Get Their Attention:
- Getting your child’s attention when they are in the throes of a tantrum can be difficult. Remember, whatever has triggered their tantrum feels like the end of the world to them and has caused a storm of emotions that are now bursting out. We often rely on vocal commands to try to snap children out of their tantrum however, this often turns into yelling ( yelling over your child’s hysterics, yelling to gain control, or/and yelling out of frustration).
- Don’t underestimate the influence of eye contact and soft physical touch. It can be incredibly attention grabbing and validating for you child when you can “get on their level”. This looks like:
- Kneeling in front of them
- Engaging eye contact (asking them to look at you)
- Placing a soft, steady hand on their shoulder/both shoulders (or on their upper/outer arms, or taking their hands in your hands).
Confident Role Modeling:
- Again, children have not yet fully developed the appropriate skills to calm and contain their emotions. They learn these skills by looking to and mirroring the reactions and emotions of the leaders in their lives (parents, teachers, other adults, etc). Let your child know that although they are feeling out of control, you are in control and are going to help them. Role model this through:
- Tone of Voice: A low, calm yet firm, confident tone of voice.
- Body Language: Strong, solid, confident (chest up, shoulders back, *power poses)
- Facial Expressions: Calm, maintain eye contact
Acknowledgement (Questions v.s. Statements):
- Sometimes reasoning with your child (i.e. it’s not that big of a deal, you know better than to.., etc) or investigating why your child is upset through further questions (Why did you.., Who did what? Why are you this upset?, etc) can send your child further into their tantrum. This is not to say that inquiring why your child is upset is a bad thing, but the immediate goal is to get them to calm down and come out of their tantrum state so that you can discuss the situation without the hysterics. A great way to let your child feel heard and understood while also getting them to calm down is by using the following verbiage: “I need you to take a big breath and calm down so I can understand why you are upset,” followed up with an empathetic, “I understand.”
- As mentioned previously, a tantrum usually stems out of the loss of something which, ultimately equates to a loss of control. Help your child feel back in control, while also offering a distraction from the initial upsetting scenario ( a momentary mental break if you will), by giving them the power to choose between some non-related options. An example of this would look like: “I understand you are upset that your brother took your toy… hey, I really need your help with something. I cannot decide what we are going to have for dinner tonight, would you be able to help me choose?” Another example would be: “I understand that you really don’t want to go to school today… later today I was thinking we could go for a walk and explore that park down the street or you could show me how to play [game they like]. Which sounds more fun to you?”
Taking a Break:
- If your child continues to tantrum after you’ve initiated these steps, role model removing themselves from the situation. This is a skill we as adults often use, perhaps without realizing it. Imagine listening to two coworkers talk about a subject that gets on your last nerve. Would you scream and berate them while throwing things about the office? Some may choose to confront the coworkers and ask them to cease the conversation. However, more often than not, you would remove yourself from the situation by walking away, giving yourself a chance to calm down and then go about your day.
Teach your child to do the same by helping them identify a safe place away from the situation where they can take their time to calm down. Create a name for their safe place such as “Calm Spot” or “Safety Zone” and role model that it’s okay to go there. An example of this would be: Johnny began having a melt down when you walked him to the door of his classroom. He is inconsolable and making a scene. “Johnny, I see that you are upset, lets locate a Calm Spot, how about under that tree.”
Let your child know that they can tell you why they are upset once they’ve calmed down and repeat the previous steps detailed above once you feel they are ready.