Meltdowns during early childhood are inevitable. As discussed in Part One: Understanding Temper Tantrums, a child experiencing a tantrum is often communicating that some developmental need is not being met. In order to decipher the cause of a tantrum, seek out clues in your child’s specific actions. In your child’s behavior is all the data you need to offer support and plan the best approach for limiting future outbursts.
Here are some strategies you can use to help avoid tantrums:
Step 1: Understand the Cause
If you find yourself in a situation where your child is having a tantrum, your efforts to identify and address the cause will not only help with the current circumstance, but will give you insight into future situations.
If your child frequently has outbursts, be on the lookout for situations in which you can observe their behavior and try to notice the common themes.
Here are some guiding questions you can ask:
- When does your child have a meltdown? Do tantrums seem to happen at specific times, such as right before a nap, or before leaving the house?
- What conditions seem to precede tantrums? Is there something in your child’s environment, like the temperature being too hot, or an uncomfortable pair of shoes, that seems to accompany tantrums? Of course, always consider if your child may be hungry, tired, or overwhelmed.
- What does your child say during a tantrum? What typically calms him down, and what seems to aggravate him further?
- Are there any developmental aspects to the situation? See Part One: Understanding Temper Tantrums for more details about this.
Once you formulate a hypothesis on the root of the tantrum, you can come up with a plan tailored to your child. Each child is unique, so how to help avoid and process frustration will vary from child to child - there is no cookie-cutter solution. However, there are some general strategies you can use to avoid and defuse tantrums.
Step 2: Minimize Your Child’s Frustration (Take Consistency Seriously)
Children are extremely sensitive to routine, and love predictability. While having a consistent routine is the surest way to support your child’s sensitivity to order, sometimes a routine will have to be changed for one reason or another.
In such cases, taking a child’s need for consistency seriously means verbally signposting the situation, and giving your child a chance to prepare. When there is a change to a normal routine, it is often the surprising nature of the change that triggers a dramatic emotional outburst. If you will be stopping by the post office before going home after school, telling your child once you get in the car will help—but telling your child the night before, that morning, and then immediately at pickup is even better. When there are changes, the earlier and more often you can remind your child about what to expect, the better. In fact, frequent signposting can transform a potentially-distressing change in routine into an experience that actually reinforces the predictability of the world for your child.
Your child’s need for predictability may manifest in some areas more than others. For example, maybe your child is totally unfazed by the fact that you’ll be stopping by the post office and does not need a reminder, but has deep expectations that mommy is the person who picks her up from school each day. In that case, use frequent signposting to let your child know when her babysitter, not her mom, will be picking her up from school, and ask teachers to do the same. This will allow her to adjust to the change, instead of experiencing a sudden shock and confusion at the end of the school day. The more your child knows about changes to the things that she is counting on to be consistent, the better prepared she will be to adapt to change—and the more you observe her, the better you’ll be at knowing which things she needs advance warning about.
Finally, taking consistency seriously also means being reliable. Children appreciate consistency from the people in their lives, just like adults do. So, if you make a commitment, try to do your best to have your actions match your words. If you say that you will be leaving right after lunch, do your best to make sure that you follow through.
Among the many reasons that a Montessori classroom works so well, one is that it is designed to minimize transitions. Children naturally engage in a single activity for long, uninterrupted periods, and in a Montessori environment, the extended work period give them the opportunity to do so.
Children are learning to concentrate, and need the time to develop their capacity to transition from one activity into another. One of the major sources of frustration for a child is when their concentration is interrupted: this can quickly escalate to a full-blown meltdown.
While we can do our best at home to allow frequent, uninterrupted blocks of time for a child to engage in an activity, it is unreasonable to expect a parent to eliminate the natural transitions in life. Instead, the goal is to help your child learn to handle such change. Clear signals that we can put in place to make change predictable let children know that they can depend on the patterns in their world. Whether it is a bath-time routine, a reminder bell before dinner, or a goodbye ritual at drop-off, a formal multi-step transition process helps your child cognitively shift from one context to another.
In less formal situations, fall back on heavy signposting. Telling your child that a transition is coming up will help prepare them. Be specific and concrete: “We are leaving as soon as I get my purse and take my jacket from the closet, so you will need to finish your Lego house after we come home from Grandma’s, but you can keep working for a bit longer while I get ready.” Or, “Lunch will be ready soon. You have time to finish the blue train track before coming to wash your hands.” Telling your child that a transition is approaching gives them time to find a stopping point with what they’re doing, and to prepare for the upcoming change.
During these early years, children are learning how to make choices and decisions. They are learning to become independent, self-directed human beings, and this is no easy task! It requires practice, and if a child doesn’t have some freedom to make choices, they will become frustrated. As a parent, you can offer reasonable choices such as, “Do you want to take a bath before or after dinner?” This supports your child’s need to make decisions, and can help reduce frustration that may otherwise lead to a tantrum.
Step 3: Acknowledge Your Child’s Experience
Even when you've done your best to minimize frustration for your child, it's normal and healthy for your child to experience frustrating situations and express frustration at times, as we all do. Especially when overwhelmed, young children are unable to recognize or verbalize why they are upset. They need your help to understand the cause of their intense emotions. Help them sort through the chaos by identifying the cause of the upset, and labeling the emotion itself: “You really want to stay at the park! You must be feeling frustrated!” Just like an adult, a child feels comforted when she is understood.
Consistently taking the time to recognize the cause of your child’s feelings shows your child that you understand her and that you care, and will build trust between you. Acknowledging the situation aloud may also calm your child down in the moment, but remember that it’s normal and healthy for your child to need some time to cry and “vent” before the emotional cycle completes. During this time, you can support your child by saying something like, “I hear you. I’m here and if you need a hug, I’m available.” Though you may need to remove your child physically from a situation to avoid disturbing others, you can still support your child's experience and give them time to work through the emotions they are experiencing.
To help illustrate these strategies, here’s an example. Suppose your child often cries before bath time. Once you notice this, you can pay close attention to the environment surrounding the child’s tantrums, and try to notice exactly what your child is reacting to. Think about what your child is usually doing right before a tantrum, and note whether there’s something specific happening before or during bath time that may offer clues. After careful examination, you might observe that the meltdowns seem to happen most often when you spring bath time on your child when they’re in the midst of an activity. Once you’ve noticed this, you can make a plan to make the situation less frustrating.
You could quell future tantrums by verbally signposting for your child incrementally, and formalizing the transition with a bath time bell. You may decide to consistently let your child know when bath time is in 10 minutes, when it’s in 2 minutes, and to ring the bell when it’s bath time. Now, it’s easier for them to deal with the change because you haven’t sprung it on them abruptly.
To appeal to your child’s developing sense of self-direction, and to help her feel more in control, you could also offer choices (“Which bath toys do you want to use today?”), or give your child a way to help with the process (“Will you feel the water, and tell me if you like the temperature?”).
If your child is still frustrated or upset, acknowledge the situation and the emotion. Perhaps you would say something like, “I know you really want to finish coloring. You are upset! When you’re ready, let’s go find your towel.”
The first key is observing your child and discerning what’s triggering the tantrums. Then, put together a custom plan to reduce the frustration, incorporating some of the ideas above, and finally, if the tantrum does occur, support your child through the emotions with compassion and understanding.