23 May 2019

How to manage tantrums and meltdowns

From Are We There Yet?, 11:00 am on 23 May 2019

Whatever you want to call it, the rage of toddlers (and sometimes older kids) is hard to handle. Katy Gosset looks at why tantrums happen and how we can teach children to manage their emotions.

A photo of a small boy having a tantrum at bedtime in his cot

Photo: 123rf

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When we film or photograph our kids, it's usually the good stuff – highs, smiles and milestones.

But one day Jody* filmed her ten-year-old son Andrew* having a tantrum.

It was about the usual bone of contention.

"Tantrums to do with social media devices are the biggest things in our house," she says. 

So it was ironic that a device provided a new insight for Andrew when he watched the video back on Jody's phone.  

"He just was like 'Mum, that's just ridiculous, look at how I am.' 

"I was like 'I know, 'I know! That was really crazy'."

Seeing himself hasn't entirely stopped Andrew's tantrums but Jody feels that allowing her son to experience anger or annoyance was part of preparing him for life.

"There are times when I think 'It's actually OK for you to get cross and grumpy ... if I take this off you, because I am your parent...'

'And part of parenting is that I'm going to upset you occasionally."

A photo of a baby having a tantrum and fighting with his mother for a smart phone sitting on a couch in the living room at home

Photo: 123rf

People often feel that tantrums are a bad thing, according to clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher.

"[Parents think] that if our kids have one, we're not parenting well enough or we've got something wrong."

In fact, meltdowns are crucial for children's development, she believes.

"Evolution and development decided long ago that frustration and the resulting tantrum is a necessary part of learning."

Toddlers who had yet to develop a 'theory of mind' often throw tantrums because they cannot make themselves understood, Ms Gallagher says.

"Theory of mind is when we hold that belief or that knowledge that you and I can think different things."

That means a toddler who wants an orange jelly bean will assume her parents know this and become frustrated when her wish isn't granted.

"So you can see how if I'm going 'Where is my orange jelly bean?' and 'you're just not getting it Mum,' and I'm getting upset. [That] equals tantrum."

A good first step to help children manage their feelings is to label the emotion, Ms Gallagher says.

"So you might say to a child, 'Hey, it looks to me like you're feeling pretty angry right now."

A child might then deny this but there is ''something in his brain that's going to go, 'OK, there's a word to describe how I'm feeling.'"

More general terms such as 'Gosh, this looks a bit tough' or "You're feeling pretty unsettled right now' are even better, Ms Gallagher says, as often children haven't quite worked out the specific emotions they're feeling.

A photo of Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: Supplied

When children do know what they were feeling it's important for parents to listen and not brush the emotion aside.

"My child might be showing me ...or telling me about an emotion and I'll say 'No you're not, don't be silly' or 'Come on be positive.' 

Negating what children were feeling can leave them demoralised, she says.

"It can make us feel even more frustrated."

'So even something like, 'I can really see this is tough right now. That's validating. It's going 'I'm seeing you, I'm witnessing what's going on for you and together we'll work through this.'"

Early on parents are often intimately involved with cuddling and soothing their children as they grapple with these new and difficult emotions, Ms Gallagher says.

However by about the age of six, they should begin shifting that responsibility to children rather than always managing it for them.

"That's where we trip ourselves up as parents. We think, 'If I do a good job as a parent, I'm ironing out all the bumps so my child's not going to get frustrated and have a tantrum'."

"In actual fact, bumps in the road are essential." 

The other issue is that, while the emotions associated with a tantrum were usually quite real, kids can start to enjoy the attention they are getting, Ms Gallagher says.

"Like all of us, when we find a behaviour that gets a need met, why would we stop using it?"

She advises parents to 'drop the drama', try to pay less attention to the tantrum and, ideally, not give in to buying treats for a child to keep them quiet.

"Although we all know we've done it so don't beat yourself up too much if that card gets played every once in a while."

The goal is to have tantrums be less helpful or necessary for the child, but this will take time.

Parents can prepare their kids by talking about emotions at other times and suggesting what they can do if they were upset.

Then when a tantrum strikes, children need only to be reminded of the strategies they have learnt.

"[Say] 'So we've got a choice right now. You can stay and keep this going with me which might end up in your room with time out.

"'Or you can go and do some of those things that you know calm you down and if you need my help with that I'm really happy to be there for you."

A photo of a young boy reading quietly on his bed. The boy has a look of enjoyment on his face.

Photo: komdet chanakittidecha

This is the start of creating some space between a parent's involvement and the child's own emotional world, she says.

"So we're not doing it for them."

Ms Gallagher cautions this might not work right away as a child in the grip of a tantrum will struggle to reason.

"Expect things to get worse before they get better."

Imagine what it's going to be like when your child says 'I hate you, you're a crap parent’ because that will come out," she suggests.

This will still be hurtful to parents but preparing for it means they won't be floored by their child's comments.

It's important to stand firm in the face of a meltdown, she says.

"If, in the middle of a tantrum, we start worrying about their emotional state and start to make it up to them and... to give them lots of cuddles and attention, the message we're kind of giving them is 'Keep on doing that.'"

Parents need to strike the balance between making it clear that the behaviour was unacceptable and compassionately supporting their children to managing their own emotions, she says.

"It's letting them sit with 'This is the feeling I've got. What am I going to do about it?'" 

Parents can help set their kids on the right path by modelling good emotional management.

"If we start to get stressed to go, 'Oh man, I'm actually feeling a bit tense. I might need to take a few deep breaths and just take a bit of a walk around.'"

Jody has taught her children to go for a walk or let off steam away from others when they feel frustrated.

"When you're feeling that cross and you're feeling that angry you don't hurt someone else.

"You get out of the situation, let the situation diffuse and then come back when you're feeling a bit calmer."

But Catherine Gallagher says children are always learning and will still have meltdowns so the best approach is to be prepared.

"It's a 'when' and not an 'if', so the best thing you can do is have a plan."

If things don't work out, children learn from the experience.

"If our world is so smooth that we never get frustrated, we're completely missing the point. So go forth and frustrate your kids."

A photo of a crying girl sittng on a  wooden floor

Photo: da161/123RF

Tips for handling tantrums

- Help a child to name the emotion using general phrases such as 'You seem unsettled' or 'That's a pretty big emotion"

- If a child does volunteer an emotion, don't brush it off, or try to problem solve right away.

- Validate what the child is feeling.

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- Encourage kids to take responsibility for calming down. This could involve reminding them of previously discussed strategies such as taking some deep breaths, quiet reading or activity in their rooms.

- Be firm but compassionate. Let children know you can provide some backup help but move away and let them handle it

- At other times (when kids are not having a tantrum) discuss different types of emotions and how children might act when they experience them.

- Notice when children are behaving well and praise them (rather than only focusing on tantrums).

-  Model good management of your own emotions, i.e. tell the child when you are feeling a bit stressed and model ways of calming down.

*Not their real names.