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9 Ways to Prevent a Meltdown -- Your Kid's and Yours, Too

double tantrum

Why it works for your kid: By placing your child in a brief time-out (one minute per year of his age) in a separate room, you'll eliminate a major reason for why he's flipping out in the first place: to get a rise out of you. "The vast majority of the time, a child has a temper tantrum to get attention and control," says Carl Arinoldo, PhD, a child psychologist and coauthor of Essentials of Smart Parenting. "An actor doesn't get onstage and play to an empty house." Plus, time by himself halts the downward emotional spiral, allowing him to regroup more quickly.

Why it works for you: Hiding out behind a closed door for a few minutes gives you space to chill out. You can even say it's the punishment for losing your temper. "I tell my kids, 'I'm sorry I yelled at you. I'm going to my room to take a time-out until I can calm down,'" explains Katie Baird, a mother of three from Flower Mound, Texas. "Sometimes they pound the door and try to get in, but more often than not they think it's really funny that Mommy has to go to time-out." Whether you're reading, meditating, or surfing the Web, five minutes alone helps you regain perspective and control.

It Worked For Me: Genius Discipline Tricks
It Worked For Me: Genius Discipline Tricks

Why it works for your kid: Giggling not only lightens the mood, it provides a physical release for all that tension -- one that doesn't involve kicking and hitting. When Robin Alexander-Keenan's 3-year-old daughter Megan was starting to lose it on an 11-hour transatlantic flight, her mom lifted Megan's arms above her head and then counted her ribs. "By the time we made it to five she was hysterical and so was I," says Alexander-Keenan, of Haswell, England. "Now when I get really cross she does the same with me."

Why it works for you: Laughter isn't called the best medicine for nothing; it's long been known for its ability to reduce stress. In fact, one recent study showed that even thinking about laughing releases beta-endorphins, a natural analgesic, into your bloodstream. If playing Tickle Monster with your little one doesn't crack you up, break out the knock-knock jokes, or dive into a book by humorist David Sedaris while your toddler's down for her nap.

bad mood to good mood

Why it works for your kid: Even little kids can be taught to recognize how their body feels when they're getting worked up -- hot, itchy, stiff, jerky -- and can learn to counteract those feelings by taking a few deep breaths. In a calm moment, show your child how to pretend he's blowing out the candle on a birthday cupcake; then, the next time you see him start to get upset, you can use a simple code word like "candle" to remind him to take a breathing break.

Why it works for you: Dealing with your child's tantrum throws your nervous system into crisis mode, but slow, deep breathing shuts off those emergency signals. "If instead of yelling you stop and take a breath, you begin to calm your body's arousal system," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child. "Then you can tell yourself, 'He's not out to get me. He's upset, but I don't have to be too.'"

Why it works for your kid: For a 1-year-old, an inability to string the right words together exacerbates his frustration, which is why he'll resort to biting his big sister instead. But if you offer him words to describe his feelings, along with a bit of empathy, he'll feel better. "When I say, 'I know you are upset that it's time to leave' or 'I know you wanted that toy and you're very angry that Mommy didn't buy it,' I always see relief wash over my children's faces," says Sachia Logan, a mother of three from Independence, Missouri. "It's like they're saying, 'Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking!'"

Why it works for you: Simply saying out loud, "I'm really angry right now," validates your feelings and clarifies that you need to stop engaging with your kids for the moment. Plus, if you say it only on occasion, it can stop your child in his tracks. "It can be valuable to let our kids know how we feel, and how their behaviors are affecting us," Hal Runkel says.

Why it works for your kid: When your child is getting upset, hand her some crayons and paper so she can draw a picture of how she feels. Even making just a few angry black scribbles is a healthy way for her to express her emotions, and it lets her know that you're paying attention to how she feels.

Why it works for you: Getting creative by drawing, writing, or playing an instrument is the perfect way to vent, and it can channel the day's frustrations into a more fruitful outlet. Knowing that she'll spend the evening blogging about her kids' annoying behavior tones down Stephanie Elliott's irritation about it for the moment. "Sometimes I even say it out loud: 'That's a blogger!' And it's almost like I have to get to the computer immediately to get it out of my system," says the mother of three from Woodridge, Illinois. Blog bonus: Readers offer helpful comments and dispense sympathy when you're struggling.

Why it works for your kid: When children are learning to control their behavior, an extra incentive doesn't hurt. Throw a marble in a jar when they manage to head off a tantrum at the pass, with the promise that 10 marbles earn them a trip to the bowling alley or a movie night at home. It might make them think twice before they blow their top.

Why it works for you: Everyone loves to be rewarded for good behavior, so if you have your own marble jar, it'll give you a tangible way to track and recognize improved patience. "If you know you've got a problem blowing up around your kids, and you've started doing deep breathing or drinking a glass of water to calm down, why not take yourself to the spa as a reward?" says Linda Pearson, a family nurse practitioner in Lakewood, Colorado, and author of The Discipline Miracle.

Why it works for your kid: Counting warns your child that his behavior is unacceptable without requiring you to launch into a lecture. Plus, it gives him a set amount of time to transition from one activity to another, such as from hogging the toy truck to sharing it or from roughhousing the dog to petting her gently.

Why it works for you: The mantra-like focus you need to slowly count to 10 in the midst of a battle with your kid enables you to ratchet down your anger a few notches. And it buys you time. "When your kid's driving you crazy, if you can just pause before you respond, that's when you can make a great choice about how to react," Runkel says.

bathtime

Why it works for your kid: Singing a silly sing, talking in a wacky accent, or pretending you're Cinderella's wicked stepmother is the parental equivalent of cracking a joke in a tense meeting at work: It reminds everyone that the situation isn't nearly as dire as it seems. "Doing something like singing shifts the area of your child's brain that's functioning, and that can actually calm her," Mary Sheedy Kurcinka says. "It breaks the tension."

Why it works for you: Getting a little silly forces you to ditch your angry face. "One way I interrupt meltdowns is by turning on some goofy kid songs, like John Lithgow's Singin' in the Bathtub CD, and dancing a silly dance," says Vicci Radake, of Fenton, Missouri, the mother of an 11-month-old. She has also tried the technique with her daycare kids. "It gives me a burst of energy and gets the kids to forget what they were even crying about."

Why it works for your kid: Children tend to focus on one thing at a time, so if you can nudge their one-track mind in a more pleasing direction, they'll forget why they were so upset. When 2-year-old Calvin Charles is on a crying jag, his mother, Jessie, of Brigham City, Utah, says, "Let's think about something that makes you happy. What makes you happy?" As Calvin wails, Jessie offers suggestions, like seeing a kitty, getting a hug from his baby brother, or eating marshmallows, until one of them makes him smile and he starts chatting about it.

Why it works for you: Mentally taking yourself someplace you love is like meditating -- it calms and centers you. When household tensions run high, Carri Perry, a mother of five from Gilbert, Arizona, shuts herself in the bathroom, closes her eyes, and thinks of the beach. "It's like a 10-minute vacation without the sunburn, and I emerge refreshed and ready to handle all of their issues." Even if you can't escape behind a closed door, simply take a deep breath and envision your favorite place (that cabin in the mountains, a field of flowers) for 30 seconds to relieve stress.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.