Parenting children

Tantrums: 3 Must-Know Tips About Your Child’s Meltdowns

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sad pumpkins

It’s showdown time, and it ain’t a pretty sight: on one side, stands J. Unior, an expert fighter who can whip out a full-scale tantrum in ten seconds flat. And on the other side, trying to look as if everything’s cool and completely under control (but failing miserably) is…J.Unior’s mom.

Ugghh. I know what that’s like.

I used to think that nuclear meltdowns were for “other people’s kids.” Passing a mom trying to handle her own little nuclear reactor aroused feelings of pity – and perhaps a bit of superiority- that I would never tolerate such abominable behavior. Didn’t they know how to train their kids?

And then our foster girls came.

Suddenly, I had children that wanted everything they saw, didn’t know how to handle a no, and were quite vocal about making their opinions known. And while the older one learned fairly quickly how to handle herself, her younger 2 ½ year old sister took a bit…longer.

So there I stood at my local superstore, holding a child who screamed so hard that not only did she have to be taken out of the store (well, to be honest we’d fled the store long ago) but had people stopping to stare, convinced I must be doing something, even though absolutely nothing was going on. It’s a wonder people didn’t think we kidnapped her.

The truth is, we tried everything , but nothing seemed to work – until I hit on these 3 tips that stop those meltdowns before they hit full tilt:

Some children abhor change.

It took time for me to realize that S. was easily overwhelmed when in public places. Initially I thought her reactions were due to a specific place (that grocery store’s lines are too long, this one has really bright lights, etc.). But after examining each incident, I realized that she used a lot of energy just trying to keep herself together when she left home base.

It didn’t matter how exciting the place was (that just made it worse, actually) or how calm the surroundings were (then we all stood around watching her cry, thankful the place was empty, and wishing we could get home). It was simply the act of leaving a place where she felt safe and knew what to expect that threw her a loop.

Watch out for sensory overload.

There were times, when, surprisingly, our trips in the Great Outdoors fared well – for a little while. Then suddenly everything caved in, and from nowhere-stage 7, red alert.  That’s when I realized that while most children could handle a decent amount of sensory overload, S. couldn’t handle very much at all.

I originally thought I could sweep in and out in a half-hour, a reasonable period of time even for a child with special needs. But for her, 10 or 15 minutes was about all she could take. So we lured her outside while the going was good with offers of bubbles, going to a nearby playground, or a healthy snack. Then we took her to the side where she could have some down time.

Preparation is the key to success

The secret here is not your regular “remember what to do if you feel upset sweetie,” game plan. Because of her history, she was literally unable to remember consequences: she made absolutely no connection between what she did and any reward or negative consequence that came with it.

So instead, I tried a different tactic: backwards chaining. Backwards chaining is what you use when you teach your children to put on their clothing. So the first thing you teach them is how to put on the last item of clothing – usually shoes. Then you might try socks or pants, and then a shirt.

Most parents do it naturally, without realizing how powerful a technique it is.

Here’s what I did:

  • I cut down on the amount of time spent outside to about 5 minutes. This was the amount of time I knew for sure she was able to keep herself together. I also hoped the short span of time would help her learn to connect her actions to the consequences (not necessarily negative).
  • Right before time was up, I told her, “Look how calm you are! No crying!” Then I gave her a small treat after we left the store. I then asked her, “Are you calm? You’re not crying, right?” When she answered me in the affirmative then I told her that because she was calm, she could have a treat( a chocolate chip- you can buy ‘em off cheap at this age if you’re smart J). I then let her take the treat on her own.
  • From then on, I gradually moved back the time I waited until I mentioned the reward. Instead of asking her when we’d already been in the store for 5 minutes, I waited until we were there for 7  minutes. At that point, I only reminded her about the treat, explaining that since she is so calm she will get to have a treat as soon as we leave the store and sit on the bench.
  • We continued this way until I was able to remind her at the beginning of the trip. Then I gradually extended the amount of time we spent at the store and – voila!

A happy, calm child.


Did your toddler or preschooler ever pull a truly epic tantrum on you? What did you do? Tell me about it in the comments below.



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