The smart parent’s guide to coping with your kid’s fits.
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.
Ignore the Kid
The reason this works is fascinating: “During a tantrum, your child is literally out of his mind. His emotions take over — overriding the frontal cortex of the brain, the area that makes decisions and judgments,” says Jay Hoecker, MD, a Rochester, Minnesota, pediatrician. “That’s why reasoning doesn’t help — the reasoning part of his brain isn’t working.” Says Alan Kazdin, PhD, author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, “Once you’re in a situation where someone’s drowning, you can’t teach them to swim — and it’s the same with tantrums. There’s nothing to do in the moment that will make things better. In fact, almost anything you try will make it worse. Once he chills out, then you can talk.”
Give Your Child Some Space
“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.
Create a Diversion
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!”
Find Out What’s Really Frustrating Your Kid
This trick is for tantrums 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!”
“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.”
Offer Food or Suggest a Little R&R
“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.
Give Your Kid Incentive to Behave
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.
This is a biggie — and is much easier said than done. But experts insist you must keep your cool during a child’s tantrum. “Otherwise, you’ll get into a power struggle and make the whole thing escalate. Plus, part of the reason kids resort to tantrums is to get attention,” Dr. Hoecker says. “They don’t care if it’s positive or negative attention they’re getting. All they care about is that you’re giving them 100 percent of it.” Levy agrees, and adds: “Talking in a soothing voice shows your child that you’re not going to let her behavior get to you. It also helps you stay relaxed — when what you really want to do is yell right back. In fact, the calm tone is as much for the parent as the child! If you’re tense, your kid will pick up on it, and it’s going to amp her up even more.”
Get Out of There
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. If your child starts melting down, pick him/her up and take him/her to a different area until he/she calms down. Changing the venue can change the behavior of the child.