Shopping at Target the other day, I heard a little boy, frustrated at not getting the toy he wanted, having a world class temper tantrum. “I want that toy! Give me that toy!”, he wailed at his mother and threw himself on the ground. She already literally had her hands full—she was holding his sister’s hand, as well as pushing a stroller. His sister was about 2 or 3 and he looked a bit older, around 4 or 5.
Calm as a cucumber, while he was still kicking and screaming, she crouched down to his level and spoke to him in a kind, understanding voice, “I can see that you are very angry right now. It’s hard not getting the toy that you want.” Even though her son continued to scream, she waited quietly for a few seconds while he settled down some and then said, “It’s time for us to go.”
I remember the tantrum days with my own kids like they were yesterday. It was supremely difficult to remain calm when my son had a meltdown in a public place. Typically, it would happen when I was already exhausted, trying to get errands done. When he would pitch a fit in the aisle of the grocery store my internal thoughts went something like this: “I’m going to have to leave this store before I get what I need. Why did I bring him? Everybody is staring at me. They think my kid is out of control. I’m such a lousy parent.”
Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up; all children have them.
Toddlers meltdown when they’re frustrated at not being able to do something, hungry without knowing how to express it, when they’re overtired, or not able to get what they want as soon as they want it.
Once they get to preschool age, kids have learned that if their parent breaks down and gives in whenever they throw a tantrum, they can likely succeed in getting what they want if they throw themselves on the floor, kicking and screaming.
Needless to say, a string of self-defeating thoughts aren’t productive and don’t help deal with the situation. Here are some good tips for how to handle meltdowns mindfully:
1. Do your best to stay calm— screaming at, shaking or shaming your child tends to make tantrum behavior worse, and also makes you feel bad after the episode is over.
2. Even though it’s tempting to act right away, especially if you are in a public space, pause before you do anything. Don’t let the fact that they’re other people around influence your behavior.
3. Sometimes, you can stop a tantrum from escalating to a full blown meltdown if you’re able to distract your child away from the situation that’s causing distress.
4. If your child calms down enough to have a talk, crouch down so you’re at eye level with him and communicate in a steady, calm voice.
5. If she can’t calm down enough in the moment, have a cool down period before taking the opportunity to discuss behavior at another time.
6. Teach your child strategies to help him cool him/herself down:
– Explain that he can ask for your help about what to do when he’s feeling really mad or upset
– Offer her words to help describe her feelings,”I know you feel sad when we have to leave the playground.”
– If you’re in the right environment, offer a creative outlet: paper and crayon to draw with, music to dance or sing to, etc.
– Deep breathing: In a calm moment, show your child how to pretend he’s blowing out the candle on a birthday cake.
7. Take a break if you need one. If staying in the same room with your screaming child is fraying your nerves, take a break. Go into the bathroom, close the door and listen to music for a few minutes. Taking a few moments to breathe enables you to interact from a calmer place.
8. If your child is totally out of control and you are worried she might hurt herself, or somebody else, gently wrap your arms around her and say something like, “I know you are really upset right now, and I’m going to hold you so you won’t hurt yourself. When you’re calm, I will let you go.” This reassures her that you, as the adult, are able to keep her safe.
After the little boy at Target quieted down, I went over to his mom and told her how much I admired how she handled the situation. She seemed surprised to hear the feedback. “Oh really? Thank you!,” she said. “I thought they were going to kick us out of the store.”
Tantrums test our patience and it’s not second nature to stay centered and calm in response. Practicing maintaining your composure and acting in a measured, thoughtful way will help both you and your child weather the storm.