Taming Tantrums vs. Managing Meltdowns

Close-up of a boy having a meltdown on the playground

Tantrums and meltdowns are different kinds of emotional outbursts, and there are different ways to deal with them. Here are some strategies for each.

Ways to Tame a Tantrum

Tantrums are usually something kids have some control over. So there are many ways to try to avoid them—or stop them in their tracks.

Agree on a frustration signal. Work with your child to come up with a signal you can use when you see her getting frustrated. Practice the signal when she’s calm. Talk about what she can do when she sees it.

Create a calm space. Find a place in your house that your child can use to calm down and feel safe. Explain this is a quiet space, not a punishment space. At first, you may need to help her remember to go there when she’s upset.

Identify the cause. Knowing the source of a tantrum makes it easier to defuse. It can help you find an in-the-moment solution and help your child find better ways to deal with the situation next time.

Have clear expectations and consequences. Let your child know what you expect in certain situations. Explain what will happen if the expectations aren’t met.

Talk the situation through. Your child may not be acting appropriately, but that doesn’t mean her feelings aren’t real. Acknowledge what’s upsetting her and help her name the feelings. For example: “I know you’re angry with me because I asked you to turn off the video game. I get mad, too, when I have to stop doing something fun.”

Ignore the tantrum behavior. For some kids, the most effective reaction is no reaction. If your child’s tantrum is fed by the negative attention she gets as you’re trying to tame it, it may be better to give her some space and not respond at all.

Reinforce self-control and positive behavior. Praise your child when she’s able to gain control and calm down. Let her know specifically what she’s doing well. For example, “I know you were really angry and it was hard for you to stop yelling. You did a nice job taking some time to cool down. Now we can talk about this calmly.”

Ways to Manage a Meltdown

Meltdowns are more extreme than tantrums, and handling them is more complicated. Knowing the triggers for your child and the signs of escalation can help you avoid a total explosion. But even if you can’t stop a meltdown, there are ways you can respond to help your child regain control.

Before the Meltdown

Know your child’s triggers. They’re not the same for every child. For some kids, it might be sensory or emotional overload. For others, it might be too many demands, unexpected changes or pain and fear. If you know your child’s triggers, you can try to avoid them.

Watch for and take note of patterns. It can help you learn your child’s triggers. You may notice that your child gets more anxious or has more trouble at a certain time of day. For instance, if meltdowns tend to happen close to mealtimes or bedtime, hunger or fatigue may be triggers. Or you may notice that where they happen have something in common, such as noise or crowds.

Recognize the signs of escalation. Your child may show warning signs that she’s having trouble coping. If you can catch them early enough, you may be able to help her calm down before she becomes out of control. Common warning signs include:

  • Trouble thinking clearly, making decisions or responding to questions
  • Repeating thoughts or questions over and over
  • Refusing to follow directions or cooperate
  • Trying to shut out sensory input or attempting to run away or hide
  • Increased movement, like fidgeting or pacing
  • Complaining of physical issues like dizziness or heart pounding

Try to redirect from the trigger. For some kids, the escalation phase can be interrupted. See if it helps to try to distract her with something else to do or by redirecting her to another task or activity.

Be patient. Your instinct may be to try to stop an escalation quickly, but talking fast and loud can make it worse. Give your child more space and more time to process what you’re saying. Use short, concrete sentences that take away your child’s need to make decisions.

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