When your kid's in the middle of a tantrum, it can be tough to keep yourself from having your own meltdown, too.
"Meltdowns are terrible, nasty things, but they're a fact of childhood," says Ray Levy, PhD, a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation. "Young kids—namely those between the ages of 1 and 4—haven't developed good coping skills yet. They tend to just lose it instead." And what, exactly, sets them off to begin with? Every single tantrum, Levy says, results from one simple thing: not getting what they want. "For children between 1 and 2, tantrums often stem from trying to communicate a need—more milk, a diaper change, that toy over there—but not having the language skills to do it," says Levy. "They get frustrated when you don't respond to what they're 'saying' and throw a fit." For older toddlers, tantrums are more of a power struggle. "By the time kids are 3 or 4, they have grown more autonomous," Levy adds. "They're keenly aware of their needs and desires—and want to assert them more. If you don't comply? Tantrum city."
So how can you stop these outbursts? What follows are 10 freak-out fixes that both parenting experts and other moms swear by.
Set aside regular playtime with your preschooler. Let him take the lead in choosing the activity, and give him your full attention. Having that shared positive experience will give your child a better foundation for calming himself down the next time he gets upset. Look for opportunities to point out his good behaviors, even the small ones. The more favorable attention he gets for a desired behavior, the more likely he is to do it again. You can also model healthy ways to handle frustration in the heat of the moment, such as taking deep breaths. Equally important, fess up after you lose your temper by saying something like, “Oh, Mom really overreacted.” Your child needs to see and hear that it’s okay to make a mistake sometimes. Finally, set your little one up for success. Be aware of situations that tend to end in a tantrum, and plan accordingly. If he loses it when his tummy’s rumbling, pack a healthy snack. If he throws a fit when overtired, make naptime a top priority.
Ignore him unless he is physically endangering himself or others. By taking away your attention completely, you won’t reinforce his undesirable behavior. Walk out of the room and set a timer for a few minutes to check on him. If your child starts hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things during a meltdown, stop him immediately and remove him from the situation. Make it clear that hurting others is not acceptable. Take away a privilege and put him in a timeout if necessary. But save time-outs for harmful behavior; the more you use them, the less effective they become.
Your child will end up matching your volume because, ultimately, she wants to engage with you. Remembering that she’s feeling frustrated or sad may help you stay calm. If she loses it at the movies or another public spot, take her outside. Try offering her the option of sitting on a bench or in the car while she settles down. For some kids, having choices like these can help, especially if a lack of control is the reason behind the outburst.
Post-tantrum, follow through with the original demand that started the fit in the first place. If she got upset because you told her to pick up a toy, she should still pick up that toy once she’s calm. If she went off the rails because you said she couldn’t have a cookie, then don’t give her the cookie after the tears stop. Once your child follows through and picks up the toy, praise her. After all, that is the positive behavior you want her to remember and repeat.
Your preschooler can finally use words to tell you what she needs or wants, but that doesn’t mean her tantrums are over. She’s still learning how to handle her emotions, so a minor disagreement can quickly turn into a full-on fit. Because your child also values her growing independence, needing your help can be frustrating. She may lose it when she tries a challenging task, like tying her shoes, and realizes she can’t do it alone. While tantrums may start with anger, they are often rooted in sadness. Kids can get lost in how big and unjust a situation seems, and it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Try this one trick is for tantrums for those among the under-2-and-a-half set, says Dr. Hoecker. "Children this age usually have a vocabulary of only about 50 words and can't link more than two together at a time. Their communication is limited, yet they have all these thoughts and wishes and needs to be met. When you don't get the message or misunderstand, they freak out to release their frustration." One solution, he says: sign language. Teaching your child how to sign a few key words—such as more, food, milk, and tired—can work wonders.
Another approach is to empathize with your kid, which helps take some of the edge off the tantrum, and then play detective. "My 22-month-old throws tantrums that can last up to—yikes!—20 minutes," says Melanie Pelosi, a mom of three from West Windsor, New Jersey. "We've taught her some words in sign language, but if she wants something like a movie, she won't know how to ask for it— and still freaks out. So I say, 'Show me what you want,' and then I see if she'll point to it. It's not always obvious, but with a little time and practice you begin to communicate better. If she points to her older brother, for example, that usually means that he's snatched something away from her, and I can ask him to give it back. I can't tell you how many awful, drawn-out meltdowns we've avoided this way!"
"Sometimes a kid just needs to get his anger out. So let him!" says Linda Pearson, a nurse practitioner and author of The Discipline Miracle. (Just make sure there's nothing in tantrum's way that could hurt him.) "I'm a big believer in this approach because it helps children learn how to vent in a nondestructive way. They're able to get their feelings out, pull themselves together, and regain self-control -- without engaging in a yelling match or battle of wills with you." This trick can work on its own or in tandem with the whole ignoring bit.
Why do kids have tantrums? Here's a guide to understanding your munchkin's fits and how to deal with them at home and in public.
This is all about a deft mental switcheroo—getting your kid engaged and interested in something else so she forgets about the meltdown she was just having. "My purse is filled with all sorts of distractions, like toys—ones my kids haven't seen in a while, books, and yummy snacks," says Alisa Fitzgerald, a mom of two from Boxford, Massachusetts. Whenever a tantrum happens, she busts 'em out, one at a time, until something gets the kids' attention. "I've also found that distraction can help ward off a major meltdown before it happens, if you catch it in time," she adds. If your kid is about to go off the deep end at the supermarket because you won't buy the super-frosted sugar-bomb cereal, try quickly switching gears and enthusiastically saying something like, "Hey, we need some ice cream. Want to help me pick a flavor?" or "Ooh, check out the lobster tank over there!" Explains Levy: "Children have pretty short attention spans—which means they're usually easy to divert. And it always helps if you sound really, really psyched when you do it. It gets their mind off the meltdown and on to the next thing that much faster." Fitzgerald agrees: "You have to channel your inner actress and be an entertainer -- one with props!"
"This may feel like the last thing you want to do when your kid is freaking out, but it really can help her settle down," Levy says. "I'm talking about a big, firm hug, not a supercuddly one. And don't say a word when you do it—again, you'd just be entering into a futile battle of wills. Hugs make kids feel secure and let them know that you care about them, even if you don't agree with their behavior." Cartwright Holecko, of Neenah, Wisconsin, finds that it helps: "Sometimes I think they just need a safe place to get their emotions out."
"Being tired and hungry are the two biggest tantrum triggers," says Levy. Physically, the kid is already on the brink, so it won't take much emotionally to send him over. "Parents often come to me wondering why their child is having daily meltdowns. And it turns out they're happening around the same time each day -- before lunch or naptime and in the early evening. It's no coincidence! My advice: feed them, water them, and let them veg -- whether that means putting them to bed or letting them watch a little TV." Think how cranky you get when you miss out on sleep or your blood sugar hits rock bottom, he says. With young kids, who have greater sleep and food needs, the effect is magnified tenfold.
Certain situations are trying for kids. Maybe it's sitting through a long meal at a restaurant or staying quiet in church. Whatever the hissy hot button, this is the trick: "It's about recognizing when you're asking a lot of your child and offering him a little preemptive bribe," Pearson says. "While you're on your way to the restaurant, for example, tell him, 'Alex, Mommy is asking you to sit and eat your dinner nicely tonight. I really think you can do it! And if you can behave, then when we get home I'll let you watch a video.'" For the record, Pearson says this kind of bribery is perfectly fine, as long as it's done on your terms and ahead of time -- not under duress in the middle of a tantrum. If your kid starts to lose it at any point, gently remind him about the "treat" you discussed. "It's amazing how this can instantly whip them back into shape," says Pearson.
Every parent dreads public tantrums, for obvious reasons. You worry other parents will think you're a bad mom—that you've raised an out-of-control demon child. But that, says Kazdin, can tempt you to make choices that will only lead to more fits. "Kids, even very young ones, are smart," he says. "If you get angry or stressed or cave in and let him get his way just to end the meltdown before more people start staring, he'll learn that—aha!—it works." Your best bet, Kazdin says, is to suck it up, plaster a little Mona Lisa smile on your face, and pretend everything is just peachy. And what are others thinking? "We know from studies that the only thing people judge is your reaction to the meltdown," says Levy. "If you look calm and like you've got it under control -- yes, even though you're not doing anything to stop the fit—they think, Now that's a good mom."
Getting kids away from the scene of the tantrum can snap them out of it. "It's also a great strategy when you're out and about," says Levy. "If your child starts melting down over a toy or candy bar he wants, pick him up and take him either to a different area of the store or outside until he calms down. Changing the venue really can change the behavior."
The next time you feel the urge to spank, take a deep breath instead and consider what you want your child to learn. Watch this video for more tips on how to discipline your child.