We’ve all been there. It’s time to leave the party and your three-year-old is having an epic meltdown in front of a sea of onlookers. Instead of using the calm, understanding voice that you’ve been practicing from your positive parenting books, you end up yelling and carrying your child out kicking and screaming. Then of course as soon as your sweet babe is asleep, you start free-falling into the pits of mom-guilt, wondering how you could have handled things differently.
While I can’t promise to rid you of the mom-guilt, I do hope I can help you and your little one cut down on the drama and come to a place of better connection and understanding.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I am well versed in managing tantrums. I truly believe that language skills and the comprehension of language are the missing pieces that so often lead to a frustrated child. I have seen children who have gone from throwing tantrums multiple times a day transform into children who are calm and content just by learning basic words to express their needs.
Since young children often don’t understand much of what is going on around them, it is our job as parents to explain the situation and help them feel somewhat in control of their world. I know you’re busy. I know you’re (beyond) tired. I know you might feel like you just don’t have enough time for this, but when you and your child aren't seeing eye-to-eye, just remember to put yourself in their shoes. It might give you a new perspective.
Try this the next time there’s potential for a meltdown—
1. Prepare them for upcoming events and changes in schedule.
This is, hands down, my number one recommendation for minimizing tantrums. If you don’t remember any other steps, remember this—tell them what’s on the agenda for the day.
Tell them specific things about the environment they’re about to walk into. If you’re going grocery shopping, fill them in on what you’re there to buy and what you’re NOT there to buy. If you normally go to the playground after school but today you can't because you have to pick up dry cleaning, tell your child about this change in routine ahead of time. Car rides are a great place to review these changes since you have a captive audience.
This applies to transitioning from one activity to the next, as well. Give a simple 5-minute warning before the transition (counting down the minutes if necessary). Say something like, “We are leaving the playground in 5 minutes to get ready for dinner.”
2. Set a routine.
Do your best to set times for meals, naps, and bedtimes and try to stick with the plan. Kids thrive off routines because they like knowing what to expect. Have you ever sat in on a preschool classroom? There’s a reason it’s scheduled to the minute. It would be total chaos otherwise. But do allow room for some flexibility because, let’s be honest, we all know things don't always go as planned with kids .
3. Teach basic words.
Children can begin comprehending routinely used words anywhere from around 9-15 months. So talk to them about everything!
If they understand phrases such as “all done” and “bye bye” you can see how this would prep them for leaving the playground vs. (from their perspective) mid-play being pulled into a car seat. The more they understand what is happening in their world, the more they feel in control and the less likely they will protest.
4. Let them finish!
Patience is a virtue, and boy, it sure doesn't come naturally to me.
If your child is in the middle of a puzzle with 5 pieces left but you want to leave to go to the store, try looking at the scenario from their perspective instead of yours. If you were smack dab in the middle of something at work and a colleague demanded you got up to do something right this second, I am sure you would feel like protesting too.
Just let them finish! Yes, this means you’ll have to wait. Patience is the art of waiting. If you want patient children, you’ll need to practice it yourself.
5. Trust them more.
It’s okay if your child makes mistakes! Be there to supervise when you know dangers are present, but sometimes learning through doing is the only way it will get through to them.
For example, I had to let my 15-month-old daughter learn the hard way not to play with the hot water faucet during her bath. Of course, I was there to make sure she didn’t burn herself but she must have turned the hot water on 50 times before I realized there was no talking her out of it. So, I let her do it. She touched the water briefly then stepped away immediately. Now she knows not to touch the hot water and we no longer have bath time battles.
6. Listen to and respond to their cues.
Just because they’re small doesn’t mean their needs and desires shouldn’t carry any weight. They need to be heard in order to feel validated and loved. (Don’t we all?) If they’re yawning and rubbing their eyes, but you want to bring them out somewhere in public, then it won’t be surprising when they start having a meltdown.
7. Give them a choice.
This is my go-to for my own kids. Giving choices helps a frustrated child regain some control over his/her situation. It plays out like this—your child is having a hard time and it’s about to turn into a meltdown. Instead of saying “no,” create two scenarios that they can choose from—both of which you would be fine with them choosing.
For example, your child requests macaroni and cheese for dinner but you have other, healthier plans. Instead of saying “no”, you can say, “We can’t have macaroni tonight but we can have it sometime this weekend. Should I cook it on Saturday or Sunday?” Either choice makes the child feel satisfied with a bit of control, and you still choose what’s for dinner. It’s a win, win.
8. Simplify your life.
Maybe you’re trying to do too much. And bringing your kids along for the ride. Kids get stressed out when there’s too much going on, just like we do. I realized, for example, that two outings in one day with little ones is just too much for us right now. So we’ll play in the backyard for the day or go for a walk. Less demands equals less to protest about.
9. Know when it’s okay to let them have a good cry.
As a parent, it is important to realize there is a difference between a child who is throwing a tantrum and a child who is crying because they’re hurting on the inside. And you need to be okay with that.
My son threw an enormous (what I thought) tantrum full of crying, sobbing and throwing markers because he colored something purple that was supposed to be pink. I tried everything imaginable to help him feel better and to let him know it’s okay to make mistakes, but he was still terribly upset and nothing I did could change that.
I realized that I needed to stop trying to make things better and just let him cry. Let him know I understand how he feels. That I have navigated through life for 32 years and making mistakes is still hard for me too.
My hope for you, mama, is that through implementing some of these strategies you and your little ones can enjoy more joy and peace in your relationship with one another and say goodbye to all the drama!