Have you ever wondered why your child often seems to be at their sweetest and most agreeable when relatives are around, when they're interacting with classmates, or when the babysitter arrives?
It's a peculiar thing: One moment, my daughter is screaming and crying and rolling on the floor, and I'm not sure if I'll ever get her to put her shoes on. The next, she's bouncing on Grandma's lap and having the time of her life. While I'm always happy to see her smiling again, a tiny part of me wonders, what gives? Why do I get stuck with my daughter's worst behavior?
What I say to myself in those frustrating moments—and what I tell the parents in my practice who come to me with the same issue—is that it's a compliment when your child saves their meltdowns for you.
Why? Because it means they feel they can be their most genuine, vulnerable self with you.
It can also be a sign that your child is developing social awareness—they're learning to regulate their emotions in certain situations.
All that said, you may still be wondering if there's a way to remedy these tantrums. Again, remind yourself that your child is doing a great job of handling the many stressors life throws at them without losing their composure, at least until they're home with you.
When they do get upset, here are strategies you can use to help them calm down, depending on their age and developmental trajectory:
1. Check in with their bodies.
Is their heart beating fast? Are their muscles tense? Is it hard for them to breathe?
See if they can calm their heart rate down by doing some deep breathing exercises. Exploring these physical cues will allow your child to begin noticing the connection between their emotional and physical states.
2. Talk to them about their feelings.
Ask them why they're feeling that way and if there's anything you can do (or the two of you can do together) to help them feel better.
Acknowledge how difficult it must have been not to cry when they were with their grandparents or at school. Tell them that it's okay to be angry or sad, but they don't have to let these emotions turn into actions.
3. Set firm limits.
Let them feel their feelings but make it clear that they have to learn how to navigate through them.
Is there a point when should you be concerned by the frequency and intensity of your child's tantrums?
This is one of the trickiest questions I have to try to answer as a therapist because there isn't a "normal" level of emotional reactivity for children. The vast majority of parents I talk to have the correct intuition about their child's behavior. They know if their child is particularly sensitive or emotional or has special needs. The telltale signs are usually apparent at a young age, and are especially noticeable when parents observe their children interact with peers in daycare, preschool, or kindergarten.
If you sense that your child needs some extra help, there's no shame in seeking out people with expertise, such as a pediatrician, counselor, or teacher. Moms tell me this is the hardest part, especially when you feel desperate and isolated in your confusion and pain. Trust your instinct and get the support you need, mama.