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How to handle tantrums and meltdowns

Upset three-year-old boy
Credit: iStock.com/Juanmonino

Kicking, screaming, crying and tantrums: whichever way these behaviours play out, they all have one thing in common - for most children there is a clear underlying reason why they are wanting to express themselves in what we would consider an inappropriate way.

For children, kicking, screaming, crying and those types of behaviours are often related to them wanting something. It could be attention from a parent, that they are tired or hungry, or that they are frustrated,” says Dr Katrina Barker, Director of Academic Program for the Master of Teaching (Primary) course at Western Sydney University.

There’s something else that’s worth keeping in mind: “We call it inappropriate as adults, but for a child at certain ages, especially around those preschool years, it’s quite normal behaviour. It’s just whether it’s persistent and if they don’t calm down after about fifteen minutes it is more unusual,” Dr Barker says.

For parents, it’s tempting to label this kind of behaviour – perhaps as attention seeking or naughty ­– but Dr Barker says doing so can be problematic.

“I don’t agree with labels because children grow and develop so quickly… There will be a proportion of children for whom it will be serious, but for most it’s just not,” she says.

In fact, Dr Barker says categorising children in this way can actually reinforce the undesired behaviour.

“The child starts playing a role they have been typecast into,” she says.

Children’s understanding of their behaviour is really limited. They are learning how to behave. Our job is to really guide them, help them see what they’ve done, and explain the implications of what they’ve done. We don’t scream and shout at a kid because they can’t read…this is the same.
Dr Katrina Barker

What should you do in those difficult moments?

Dr Barker says the old adage “ignore it” can still be a useful strategy to employ when your child’s behaviour is difficult.

But, as is the case with many aspects of parenting, what’s appropriate will depend on what’s right for your child.

“For some children, ignoring their behaviour will simply cause things to escalate… You need to know your child and know what will be appropriate,” Dr Barker says.

Whatever the response, Dr Barker says things go best when parents don’t lose their cool.

“Make sure you are calm in dealing with the situation. Yelling back and getting irate with a child is only going to escalate the situation.”

Consequences should be logical and matched as closely to the behaviour as possible.

“If they scribble on the table, they clean it up. If they break a toy, they do chores around the house to earn the right to replace it or fix it with an adult,” Dr Barker says.

How to use a ‘Think Spot’

For Dr Barker, the method parents often call time out can work well in handling attention-seeking behaviours as long as it’s done mindfully.

“Take them to the place in the house, or around you, that has the least stimulus available. In our house we call it the Think Spot, some people call in the Naughty Spot. Sit down with them and say, ‘The reason why you are here is because…’ and define what it is you are concerned about, then leave,” she says.

It’s leaving that often causes the controversy among parents.

“Only leave young children a very short time: one or two minutes. For a four-year-old, five minutes is too long,” Dr Barker says.

Remember too, the person who takes them to the quiet space should be the person who takes them out.

“Otherwise it diffuses the effectiveness of that strategy,” says Dr Barker.

Afterwards comes a quick discussion:

“You might say, ‘We are sad you did this, this is how it makes us feel,’ and talk with them about what they could have done differently,” says Dr Barker, adding that younger children will need prompting about solutions but older children like preschoolers will be able to come up with their own suggestions.

The key then is moving on, fast.

“They all want a hug afterwards; restitution is an important thing. It’s about a swift response before continuing with your day,” Dr Barker says.

“A lot of parents feel they have to get into a banter and try to reason with their child during an angry outburst. But what is much more effective is a swift, prompt response to get them into a quiet space where they can have that non stimulating time, and then coming back to have that conversation when they’ve calmed down."

Reflection time is for adults too

After all is said and done, it’s not only the children who benefit from taking time to reflect. Dr Barker says that when we are thinking about what went wrong, it’s often as much about the parent’s responses than what the child has done.

“Kids do naughty things, they always will. It’s about how you respond to those that is important. There are lots of things you can do to circumvent problems: if they were cranky waiting for you, think about whether the environment was stimulating and whether they had something to do – drawing, Lego or an activity.

“I often think we, as parents, may be responsible for the reason behind the behaviour: are they hungry – did you bring snacks? Are they tired – did you put them to bed at a reasonable hour? Often tantrums are about what the children want, but we also have to look at how we, as parents, prevent it from getting to this point,” Dr Barker says.

Naturally, knowing what went wrong doesn’t mean it would have been a situation we could have changed.

“While you may not have been able to change it, it can take the heat out of the situation,” she says.

While it can be hard in the moment, remember the big picture.

“Children’s understanding of their behaviour is really limited. They are learning how to behave. Our job is to really guide them, help them see what they’ve done, and explain the implications of what they’ve done. We don’t scream and shout at a kid because they can’t read…this is the same,” Dr Barker says.

Dr Barker’s top tips

  • Stay calm. Remember, you are trying to model positive behaviours.
  • Deal with it swiftly. Dragging things out won’t help.
  • If you are using ‘time out’ then ensure the person who puts them there is the person who talks to them about it afterwards.
  • Show love. Showing warmth to a child even when he or she is naughty is really important. They are often scared and upset.