When I answered the phone, I heard the shrieks immediately. It was obvious that a child was having a nuclear meltdown on the other end of the line and the mother, exhausted and frantic, was calling the Parental Support Line for help. As the mother tried to explain what was going on, I struggled to hear her over the commotion. “We’ve been dealing with this for over an hour now. When is he going to stop?” she asked. These kinds of calls are not at all uncommon on the Parental Support Line. I talk to parents every day who have kids who come completely unglued at the drop of a hat; these parents struggle to cope with the resulting chaos. Believe it or not, there are ways to help eliminate tantrums from your daily life. It starts with understanding the meltdown.
Inside the Meltdown
The way kids think really has a lot to do with why they melt down—and why it’s so hard for them to calm down. Kids use a lot of negative self-talk and faulty thinking. Negative self-talk includes fantasies about power. Kids will think, “I’ll show her who’s boss,” or “This will teach her to tell me what to do.” They think about how unfair things are, how mean they think you are, and how little you understand them, to name a few examples. These flawed thoughts and mental images of being in control fuel their rage. It’s important to realize that kids, especially pre-teens, might not be very aware of their mental processes, though, and how these impact their behavior. What’s more, once the negative self-talk starts it’s very hard for them to stop or change it—which is part of what it takes for them to calm down. (I’ll be telling you how to do that in a minute.)
It’s also important to understand that if you’ve ever given in to your child during a meltdown, then meltdowns take on a purpose—to wear you down so that you’ll give in again. It’s hard to get kids to calm down from a tantrum if a tantrum has had a positive payoff, even once in the past. There’s nothing appealing to your child about calming down when they can gain control by appearing to lose it. (This is the slot machine effect we’ve talked about before—kids will keep pulling the lever over and over until they hit the jackpot. )
Calming Down: From Pre-schoolers to Teens
Unfortunately, as hard as it is, sometimes we simply have to step back and let kids physically wear themselves out (as long as they are not endangering themselves or anyone else). There are also some “best practices” that can help you teach your child to manage his emotions more effectively, too.
The best way to handle a child in all-out meltdown mode varies a little bit by age and stage.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers: Kids under five will need you to redirect them to a specific activity that can help them calm down. You might say, “I can see you’re really upset. I wish I could help you calm down right now. Here, why don’t you draw a picture that shows me how mad you are?” This is just a suggestion—you can try any activity you think will be soothing to your child or help them use their energy in a more positive way. With kids in this age range, walking away from them during a tantrum can cause anxiety rather than calm, so it’s often best to stay within eyesight and direct your own attention to another activity until your child is calm. They will need you to role model how to calm down for them, so minimize your interaction until you’re both calm. If you can, try to role model calm activities by taking deep breaths, flipping through a magazine, or tidying up, for example. I understand that it isn’t always possible to keep your cool when your child is in full-blown tantrum mode, but it is helpful to show him that you’re not going to become unglued by his actions—and that you’re not afraid of him or his anger. Don’t give the tantrum more power than it deserves, or you will find your child using anger more and more to get what he wants.
Elementary-aged kids: With kids in this age range, it works well to come up with a “Calm-down Plan” ahead of time. Talk with your child and let him know it’s okay to be angry, but it’s important to deal with anger in a positive way, rather than screaming, throwing things, or name-calling. Keep the plan simple—one to two steps max—and role-play the plan to help your child practice. Some kids find it helpful to go to their room, listen to music, do something creative, punch a pillow, or do something active outside. The next time you notice your child is getting upset, remind him to do the activity you planned and then disengage by walking away. Take some time and space to yourself until he calms down. This might mean that you ride out the storm, so to speak, in a room with a locked door and ignore the screaming and pounding on the other side. It might also be very helpful for you to set it up ahead of time so that your child can earn an incentive when he tries to calm himself down, which helps to motivate him to follow your instructions even in the heat of the moment.
Teens and young adults: Again, it helps to problem-solve and come up with a plan in advance, or even a menu of options they can use to calm down. In the heat of the moment, remind your child to follow the plan and walk away, staying disengaged until you are both calm. For teens, it might help for them to exercise, go for a walk, call a friend to vent, read, or write in a journal. Rewards or consequences can be effective to motivate your child to follow the plan, but it’s not effective to provide either when the storm is raging. If it’s safe, you can leave the house during an outburst to allow you both some time and space to calm down. Some parents will call us from their locked car in the driveway, or they’ll go drive around the block or run some errands. If your child acts out by breaking something while you’re gone, for example, give her consequences for her actions when you get home.
5 Tips to Help Your Child Calm Down
Here are some tips and techniques that are helpful for all ages and stages.
Don’t try to control kids when they’re angry: Rather than trying to get your child to her room, or trying to make her stop screaming and throwing things, focus on controlling yourself. Usually when you try to control another human being, they just push back even harder against you. You can’t ultimately make your child stop screaming or throwing things, and we don’t recommend that you try. It’s best to focus on being a positive role model, staying calm, and refraining from trying to overpower them. When you accept that your child will either choose to keep going or choose to try the Calm-down Plan, the dynamic of the situation changes for the better.
Avoid reasoning and deep conversations: Many parents will make the well-intended mistake of trying to reason with their child and “talk them out of the meltdown.” They think, “If I can just get him to understand, maybe he’ll stop.” Trying to reason with your child, attempting to get him to understand your perspective, or even talking about why he’s so angry, just like with adults, is probably not going to be productive. It’s much more effective to talk later when everyone is calm.
Respect your child’s perspective: When you are coaching your child to calm down in the heat of the moment, try your best to use a calm, quiet tone and language that’s as non-judgmental as possible. For example, let’s say your child is freaking out about not having anything to wear to school, and her tantrum is escalating into a full-blown rage. It’s not going to be helpful to say, “That’s not important,” or “There’s no reason to be mad.” The truth is, it is important to your child in that moment and it s a reason to be angry in her eyes. It matters to her and if you minimize it too much, you might end up escalating the situation even more. Think of it this way: if you’re upset about something and your spouse, a colleague or neighbor says, “It’s not important. Why are you so upset?”—how would you feel?
Accept trial and error: You might need to experiment with different language or techniques to find what works best for your child when he’s angry. Some kids respond well to non-verbal cues like hand-signals, while older kids might find that embarrassing. Some kids get angrier if you tell them to take a time-out, but might respond well when you say it’s time for you both to take a break or cool off. If certain words or phrases seem to fan the flames, take note and try some different words next time.
Repeat, repeat, repeat: This process of problem solving, coaching, and then walking away is something that most parents will need to do over and over again. Remember that kids need repetition in order to learn new ways of managing difficult situations and emotions. Effective parenting—and the ability for your child to calm down—just like anything else, takes practice.
Anger can build up pretty gradually or come to a peak rather quickly, but it usually takes a while for feelings of anger to fade away. As you work with your child on better coping skills, over time you might see them begin to calm down more quickly. In the meantime, though, you might see a lower-level anger hanging around after the peak. We recommend that you ignore it and the door-slamming, stomping, grumbling, and scowling that come along with it. We don’t want to give these lesser behaviors a lot of power or re-escalate the situation. Remember that everyone deals with anger in a different way and some people recover from it more promptly than others. Just because you are ready to move on doesn’t mean your child should be, too. When you use the tools and suggestions provided here and consistently practice limiting your interaction with your child during a meltdown, the meltdowns should gradually get shorter in length and less frequent over time.
About Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former 1-on-1 Coaching advisor with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.