3 Things You Can Do to Head Off Most Tantrums
You're in the checkout line at the grocery store with your two-year-old in the cart. His little face is right next to all the chocolate candy bars. There are two people ahead of you in line and three behind. The inevitable occurs. Your son asks sweetly for a chocolate. You say no—just as sweetly. Then, in under three seconds your boy's face twists into an expression of murderous rage and blood-curdling screams blast throughout the store.
Of all the behavioral problems parents have to face, tantrums may be the most upsetting—especially when these meltdowns occur in public. At these moments you can feel embarrassed and ashamed—you're on stage in the bright lights. You feel like a bad parent and like you've done something wrong, though you're not exactly sure just what your mistake was. But the looks on the faces of the other people around you—and the look on your own child's face—send an unmistakable message to you that you have messed up big time.
There's bad news and good news here. The bad news is that you cannot wish tantrums away and, yes, your kids are probably going to embarrass you in public on any number of occasions. That's, unfortunately, part of parenting.
The good news is this: If you learn how to think about tantrums correctly and realistically, and if you learn how to handle these outbursts calmly and decisively, you can train most kids to outgrow this obnoxious phase of their existence. Some children may take a few days, some a few months, and others may still blow up from time to time, but at a rate that is way less than the tantrum frequency they started at.
When it comes to handling tantrums, there's no room for screwy thinking or waffling around. Your thinking must be clear and your actions decisive. You've got to face facts, toughen up, and know exactly what you're going to do when your little angel disintegrates into a fury. Like what?
Clear thinking: Tantrums are normal in kids aged 18 months to about five years. Though very upsetting to everyone, tantrums are not a sign of mental illness. Meltdowns are also not a sign that you as a parent did something wrong; in fact, tantrums are usually the result of good parenting—good parenting known as limit setting. You can't give your kids everything they want, and when you say "No" (which will happen a lot!) you're at risk of a tantrum. Giving a child a thing (candy) or granting them an activity (TV) primarily because you're afraid they're going to blow up is a bad move.
Decisive action: So what are you going to do? First, here's what you don't want to do. Don't give them what they want after the tantrum has begun. Second, don't whimper at them! Parental whimpering means pleading, begging, chattering, and useless reasoning. A whimpering tone of voice sends a clear message to your little one that they have you on the ropes ready for the kill. This will escalate their meltdown—guaranteed.
As a Plan A, distraction and sympathetic listening can help with some kids, but be prepared to go quickly to Plan B (next paragraph) if these tactics fail. If you don't switch fast to Plan B, you're going to start either whimpering or having a tantrum of your own, which won't do either of you any good.
After a tantrum starts, you have 10 seconds to act decisively. Waffle around for more than that period of time and you'll reinforce the outburst. What options do you have? Here are a few. If the child is safe, leave the room and let them finish the tantrum by themselves. Some parents do "Tantrums are for the room, let me know when you're done." Escort them if necessary, but without further talk. Some parents of older kids do "For every minute you tantrum, bedtime is that much earlier." Counting from 1-2-3 Magic can also be useful and decisive.
What about our parent in the grocery line? They have several options. One is to simply give the child the candy bar before any tantrum starts. Problem solved, problem prevented. But let's say it's too close to dinner. You could pull out an engaging book or a toy right before checkout to try to distract the child. Is the checkout line usually a problem? Think ahead!
But say the child has already melted down. Stop talking, break eye contact, behave as calmly as possible, and get out of the store as fast as you can! Chalk it off to a bad day and, after ten minutes or so, try to accept, forgive, forget, and start over. Your son will get over the whole thing a full 78 minutes before you will! You want to talk about "emotional labor"? Parenting is a tough job.
Want more in-depth info on Managing Meltdowns in Public and in Private? Watch the 60-minute web class with Dr. Phelan (it’s free!).