by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, December 2011
At some point in your career as a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend, or bystander, you will likely witness a toddler child's "meltdown."
A child who "melts down" is a child who is overwhelmed with feelings of anger. Although many children have learned that temper tantrums will get them attention, most children who have tantrums feel frustrated and angry that they are not getting or doing what they want or that they are supremely uncomfortable. They feel overwhelmed with emotion. Sometimes they yell and cry, holler and kick so be sure the child is safe. See if you can help the child discover the source of his or her frustration. Maybe a sock has fallen into a shoe and is "bumpy"; perhaps he spilled his cereal on the floor and cannot reach the bowl. In these situations the toddler needs to have your heartfelt empathy. If, after some minutes, the tantrum escalates and the child is unable to calm down, try holding (not too tight) your child close to you in a loving hug. Speak softly or don't speak at all and rock him or her to let the child know you will help them to get control of themselves.
Too often, as soon as an adult sees a tantrum, they become impatient, angry, and immediately intervene. Tantrums that occur frequently in children who are about 2 years of age, will often decrease by the time the child is 4. What is helpful is to try to remain calm, see if you can anticipate what sets the child off and do your best to avoid situations that are potentially problematic especially at times when the child is tired, hungry, irritable or frightened. If you are witnessing a tantrum see what you can do to distract the child or change the scene. Sometimes bringing the child to another space, going outside, listening to music, speaking in a calm voice, reading, singing a favorite song or nursery rhyme, can help the child feel more in control of him or herself and help the two of you regain a more comfortable way of communicating. Among the most important qualities adults can nurture within themselves, before, during and after engaging with a child who tantrums, are compassion, empathy, patience, humor, and a sense of calm.
Children look to the adults in their lives for security, comfort, direction, teaching, acceptance, and love. Keep your cool. When adults are out of control, children often feel scared. Many children's tantrums can be curbed by altering the way you respond, not just to the tantrum but to the way you treat the child in general and help him or her deal with a situation. If your child is having a tantrum because he or she was just refused their 3rd dessert, or your 2nd reminder that it is time to get into the bath, then you may need to initiate some "time out" to help your child calm down on his or her own.
"Rehearsing" or "role playing" what is likely to occur also helps children feel more prepared for a situation or event. For example, prior to going on a play date, you can say, "Sometimes Suzie doesn't like to share. What can you do if she does not share her favorite toy?"
Children watch the way adults talk to one another and to children, and they model that behavior. Pay attention to the ways you deal with frustration, anger, and disappointment because your children are likely to copy you.
Even though you may be upset and embarrassed (why do these meltdowns often occur in public places?) do your best to remain calm and a bit emotionally detached. The child is expressing a feeling in a way he or she believes is okay. Often adults get so caught up in the behavior they forget to pay attention to the underlying reason the child may be upset. Hence, they miss an opportunity to help the child find alternative ways to express frustration or anger.
In summary, acknowledge the child's feelings. See the situation from their point of view. Find distractions. Role play. And help them explore age appropriate ways to respond instead of melting down.
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