Are you confused about what to do when your child has a tantrum or meltdown? Has getting down on their level and making them feel safe helped with your child's tantrums? Has holding them and helping them take a deep breath or giving consequences helped with their tantrums or meltdowns? If you are reading this you have likely experienced some form of tantrum or meltdown from your child. You have read parenting books and searched the internet, yet you are still at a loss for what to do.
Much of what you read fails to distinguish between a true meltdown and a tantrum.
Tantrums happen when a child is trying to get something they want or need. Meltdowns occur when a child feels overwhelmed by their feelings or surroundings. Tantrums are a form of manipulation. When your child wants something in the store, and you tell them no, and they yell, "I hate you," screaming, "I want, I want." They are using manipulation and what you have is a tantrum. If your child wants to go to the park and you tell them only if they eat their dinner, and they refuse to eat their dinner, screaming and thrashing about on the floor, you have a tantrum. If your child gets better immediately after getting their way without needing any recuperation time, they have used their tantrum to manipulate you.
On the other hand, if they get frustrated over not completing schoolwork or losing their temper because their little sister knocked over the blocks they worked so hard on to show mommy or daddy, both children are likely to have a meltdown. If you make them go to time out because you do not like that they hit their little sister despite them knocking over their blocks and they fall to the floor flailing like a fish out of water, they are having a meltdown. The difference is the child is not using behavior to manipulate the situation. The differences can be subtle. If your child thinks flailing like a fish will change your mind about the time out, you would have a tantrum, and no amount of getting down on their level, acknowledging their feelings, and making them feel safe will help. In fact it will arguably make things worse.
During a meltdown, your child's brain is in fight or flight. They will not be able to process what has happened, and they will need some time to calm down.
Meltdowns usually end in one of two ways. One is fatigue—kids wear themselves out. And it is perfectly okay to let them do this on their own without you. It is different for every child. Another is a change in sensory input. This can help kids feel less overwhelmed. As a result, your child might feel calmer after you step away with them.
Children learn how efficacious their behavior can be to get what they want around the ages 3-5 years old, and they become master manipulators! Sometimes they pretend they did not hear you. Sometimes they act helpless. Our parents and grandparents would not have had any of this behavior, but today it has become all too common for parents to let their children run all over them. I believe much of this is because we have over-psychologized parenting and children's behavior. Parenting is one of the easiest yet paradoxically challenging vocations. Parenting books have only seemed to make things more complicated and, unfortunately, has parents questioning their own parenting abilities.
One of the results of this over-psychologicalizing parenting advice is that many parents mistakenly believe some disorder or neurosensory deficit causes their child's "meltdowns." When what they actually have is a child using a tantrum for the purpose of manipulation.
If your child is having a meltdown as defined here, help your child find a safe and quiet place to de-escalate. Remember that having a meltdown is no excuse for treating other people disrespectfully, including yourself, and give consequences once things have calmed down for the disrespect.
If your child is having a tantrum, do not let them engage you. Do not enter into a power struggle or tug of war. They cannot manipulate you if you refuse to yell, negotiate, or argue with them. You need not explain anything to them; all they want is for you to react. It is better to ignore the tantrum. If you are in public, it is best to leave the store as you would with a meltdown. With a tantrum, however, you can give a consequence or a series of consequences. I usually tell parents that the next five things the child asks for or wants or is doing, it is either taken away or not granted when asked fo. Explain to your child that they do not get what they want because of how they behaved. You need to send the message that you will not tolerate any size, shape, or form of outbursts and tantrums.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.