It happens to every parent at some point. We’re standing in line at the grocery store and our little one starts to fuss and cry because they’ve just been told no candy before dinner. A little whining transforms itself into a full blown tantrum, and now Mom (or Dad!) is frantically trying to get through the checkout line with a smile on her face while attempting to appease and calm her little angel. Sound familiar? Even the most easy-going, well-behaved child can have a tough time every now and then. When attempting to tackle the meltdowns and hoping to make them less frequent, having a few tricks up your sleeve can make all the difference. Here are a few common approaches to try when this happens to you. You might try imagining how each would work with your particular child in different situations before it happens, so you are not quick-cycling between approaches in the midst of the turmoil.
Ignore the tantrum. Ignoring it may not always work, but it’s worth giving it a try in certain situations. Some things simply must happen, even if your child is having a meltdown. Groceries must be purchased, carseats must be buckled, bodies must be cleaned (at least sometimes). Even while you might understand and feel sympathy for your struggling child, you still might need to ignore the tantrum and push through your agenda. In the grocery store, it can get you through the last minutes of the checkout line; at home, you might even walk away to take a deep breath and evaluate what is really happening. A minute alone can also give an overwhelmed child a little time to work through his or her feelings.
Offer a distraction. Sometimes, a parent or caregiver veering wildly away from the source of the tantrum can catch a child before they have completely melted down. Get them to focus their attention on something new; sing them a song or offer a more acceptable choice than what they’re crying for. Offering utterly silly or impossible alternatives might tickle their funny bone. Diverting their attention can make them lose sight of what triggered the tantrum to begin with.
Find the cause. There are often valid, underlying reasons for a tantrum. Watch for a pattern, perhaps being hungry, thirsty, or tired is the culprit. There are also developmental points when the world is just more frustrating for children. Knowing when you are asking more of a child than they might be able to give should also help you avoid tantrums. Be prepared with extra snacks; offering food before a tantrum starts is often your best bet. If your child is three or younger, maybe carry them on your back where they can be sheltered and non-interactive, even if you cannot get them down for a nap. Respecting both your needs and your child’s means you can more easily find compromise solutions for avoiding tantrums.
Know the triggers. Knowing your child’s triggers may help prevent the next tantrum. There may be certain situations that lead to this behavior. You might offer an incentive to help a child struggling with their bedtime ritual, like an extra bedtime story. A special treat, like a favorite book or good car toy or a lollipop, might help get the reluctant child from the door into the carseat. Some children respond well to less talking during transitions; you might prepare yourself with a few songs so you are too busy singing to get involved in lots of chatter. As adults, we also steadily, though solicitously, pepper children with questions; some tantrums can be avoided by replacing questions (Do you want cereal?) with clear statements (You may have cereal.)
Practice patience. It’s very easy to lose your cool when there’s a screaming child in front of you, but keeping calm and showing patience is the best way to reinforce the behaviors that you want from your child. Some of a tantrum can be a child’s own sense of being overwhelmed by the strength of their emotions. When the adult also gets bowled over, it can escalate the tantrum. Growing up is hard work, and if we, as parents, can see tantrums as the bright orange flags of “construction”, we can take the deep breath we’ll need to make it through this detour.
Stand your ground. Don’t give in to tantrums, even when you’re out in public. It is better to abandon ship than to try to “treat” the tantrum away. Because tantrums are so often about an underlying cause, you may only be encouraging “bad” behavior without addressing the real issue. However, try to remain sympathetic; your child is not doing this TO you.
Give them a job. Another diversionary tactic, yes, but it can give the child a sense of power and control. It can also focus their attention outside of themselves and their discomfort. Maybe they could help you locate an item or greet everyone you pass in the store. Maybe they would just be happy to choose which bananas or to carry something for you. Feeling useful instead of endlessly dragged around can do a lot for almost anyone’s morale.
Be a clown. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. It’s okay to be silly with your kids; it can get their attention quickly and put a smile on their faces, discouraging that outburst.
Set the example. Be the role model you want to see in your children. Kids learn what they see and model behaviors from their parents. It isn’t always easy but approaching these situations with calm and patience shows children acceptable behaviors to copy.
Pay attention. Outbursts cannot always be avoided, but if we watch for warning signs, we can some turn the course. A well-timed cuddle, snack or exit might bring peace to your whole day.
It can be difficult to keep one’s cool during these circumstances, especially if the tantrum occurs in front of others. Preparing a strategy ahead of time may help defuse and even prevent some temper tantrums no matter where you are. However, we all know parenting is not an exact science; we learn as we go, building from prior experiences, striving to do better for our kids each time. So when the unavoidable happens, just remember, take a deep breath and remember, tomorrow’s another day.