The parents I’ve worked with often have ineffective ways of responding to and managing their child’s meltdowns. They either go to one extreme and yell, threaten, restrain, or even spank the child, or they go to the other extreme and give in.
In both cases, the parent may stop the meltdown, but they haven’t taught their child to behave more appropriately. And the next time their child is uncomfortable, he or she will simply throw another tantrum.
In my experience, parents are very resistant to the idea of their kids being unhappy or uncomfortable. They learn what their child has taught them: if you make me uncomfortable, I’m going to make you uncomfortable. When a child throws a tantrum at the mall and kicks and screams on the floor, he’s saying, “You have more to lose than I do.”
And he’s right. You do have more to lose: you’re embarrassed, and you can’t accomplish your goal of shopping in the mall. People are looking at you. You feel like a bad parent, and you think everyone around you considers you a bad parent.
In this situation, the kid has nothing to lose and everything to gain, and he doesn’t care what people think. He just wants to control you and get an ice cream cone. And when he gets his ice cream, the parent has inadvertently taught him that meltdowns work. And as long as something works, it’s human nature not to change it.
Kids have meltdowns and temper tantrums for two reasons. The first reason is that they do not have enough tools to manage their feelings in a new situation or event. The second reason is that meltdowns have worked—they’ve seen that when they have a tantrum, they get what they want.
If a child is confronted with a situation that he hasn’t learned how to manage yet, his response is fight or flight. It’s a survival response. And very often, flight is not an option because they can’t get out of the situation. They’re stuck, whether at the mall, in the car, or at grandma’s house. And since they can’t flee the situation, they fight, and the way that they fight is by acting out or having a meltdown.
If the parents don’t respond effectively, the child learns that having a meltdown or a temper tantrum will help him accomplish a goal. When a child gets stressed and acts out, and the parent gives in, that’s as far as the child needs to go. He doesn’t have to learn how to be patient, manage his anxiety, and deal with stress. He just has to act out so that his parent takes care of all that.
It’s not that these kids are bad. Rather, they’ve figured out that tantrums and meltdowns work for them. They’ve learned a problem-solving skill that says, “If I’m disruptive to other people, then it solves my problem.”
They don’t have to deal with the stress because everyone else is busy running around trying to calm him down, and they eventually give in to him.
I think that if meltdowns work for a child, you’ll see them continue. But as the child gets older, meltdowns will evolve into abusive or intimidating behavior. It’s a tantrum at age 5, but at age 15, it’s breaking things around the house, threatening physical violence, and using abusive language.
Unfortunately, we cannot stop the meltdowns. No matter what, children are going to get overwhelmed, frustrated, and angry, and they are going to have temper tantrums. These behaviors are part of childhood development. Indeed, they are the crude tools children use to deal with painful and confusing feelings.
But, depending on how we respond, we can manage the frequency and intensity of these behaviors, and we can give our kids more effective tools to use instead—tools that will allow him to manage overwhelming feelings on his own.
Although tantrums are to be expected, they’re not to be rewarded. Why? Because when you don’t reward the tantrum, you create a situation where the child must learn other ways to manage those overwhelming feelings. This is how you ensure that your child grows and matures.
Parents often know the right thing to say, but don’t know the right thing to do. For example, a kid may throw a tantrum when he wants an ice cream cone, and the parent gets it for him. The parent then gives the kid a speech about his misbehavior and thinks, “Good, I taught him a lesson. He understands now.”
But the kid thinks, “Good, I got the ice cream cone. I got my way.”
After multiple episodes of acting out, the parents are left scratching their heads, thinking, “I explained this to him a thousand times. I don’t know why he doesn’t understand.”
Here’s the problem: your child understood that he threw a tantrum and got an ice cream cone. Sure, he may hear your words, but he listens to your actions. And your actions say loud and clear that if you throw a tantrum, you get an ice cream cone. It’s a payoff for the child, and as long as he gets paid off, he will keep acting out.
With younger children, parents should not give in. If your child has outbursts in the car while you’re driving, talk to him before the next outing. Tell him:
“Sometimes, when we’re in the car, you get upset and start screaming. When you do this, it’s not safe for us. The next time that happens, I’m going to pull over to the side of the road, and I’m going to give you five minutes to get yourself under control. If you don’t calm down, I’m going to turn around, and we’ll go home.”
The store is another place where meltdowns are common. I tell parents that when a meltdown happens in a store, leave the store. Make sure your child knows before you go in that if he has a meltdown, then you will leave. You can say to him:
“Sometimes, when you don’t get your way, you get upset, and you yell and roll on the floor. If you do that, we’re leaving the store.”
As a kid gets older, you can tell him:
“I’m leaving the store, and if you resist or fight me, I’ll be in the car. You can find me. You know where the car is.”
Obviously, you wouldn’t leave a four-year-old in a store, but with an older child who can take care of himself, this can be effective.
If they try to play the game of “you can’t make me” say:
“You’re right. I can’t make you. I’m going out to the car, and I’ll call the security guard, and maybe they can help you out.”
You’re putting the pressure back on the child to behave appropriately. Is that risky? Of course it is. There’s always a risk. But it’s also risky to give in over and over again. Understand that I’m not advising every parent to do this. Rather, I’m saying it’s an option and something to consider if appropriate.
You shouldn’t give in to the meltdown, but you also have to understand what triggers it. If you know your child’s triggers, you can teach your child how to stay in control.
The most effective time to identify what triggers your child is right when the child starts to lose it. When this happens, intervene and say to your child:
“This is what seems to upset you. Let’s look at what you do when you’re upset.”
At this point, make it clear to your child that acting out and having a tantrum is not going to help him get his way. Tell him that rolling on the floor or screaming at the top of his lungs won’t solve his problem. And assure him that you won’t give in when he acts out.
Say to him:
“What are you going to do differently the next time this happens?”
Then talk with your child about what to do instead of acting out. But make no mistake, if you give in to your child, then this conversation won’t work, and your child’s behavior will not change.
Parents need to understand that a tantrum is a power struggle your kid is trying to have with you. It’s a strategy to try to get his way with the least amount of discomfort to him. Sometimes, that means blowing up and bringing discomfort to you, the parent.
Too often, we forget that the parent is the authority, that the parent has the power, and their child is trying to wrestle some of that power from them.
As a parent, you hold the cards. You just have to play those cards well. Part of the hand you’re dealt is your own parenting skills, your background, and your natural ability. But you should also try to use your child’s natural skills and abilities, understand their deficits, and use your authority to help your child learn to manage situations without acting out and misbehaving.
Parents have the power and can do this—I see it all the time. And, when they do, the payoff to their family life and their children is immeasurable.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.