- Understanding the Behavior
Once your child starts having these behaviors pay close attention to what factors contribute to them. I want to emphasize the word contribute here because I often hear people looking for only one reason for the behavior or even someone to blame. The truth is there will be multiple factors that impact young children and lead to a tantrum. Children under five lack communication, emotional regulation and problem-solving skills. The struggle of a tantrum or meltdown is one of normal developmental growth. Knowing what your child struggles with most can help you develop solutions. For example, lets say your child’s meltdowns are triggered from getting frustrated while playing with toys. You and your child’s other care givers will want to focus on teaching your child to ask for help. In addition, you will want to give them toys they can successfully navigate while playing alone. Toys that they need consistent assistance should be given when you or someone else has the time to assist them.
2. Distinguishing the Behavior: Tantrum vs. Meltdown
Young children respond to emotional distress in very similar ways. So it is important to distinguish what is happening with your child. Before I can assist parents with solutions we have to determine whether their child is having a tantrum or a meltdown.
To keep it simple think of a tantrum as controlled behavior to get what you want. The number one trigger of a tantrum in young children is being told “no” or not giving them what they want. With a tantrum the child may use crying or whining to get you to give in. The behaviors with a tantrum are very controlled in that they need your attention because the goal is to change your mind. If you give them the candy they are after miraculously there is calm in the storm. When you give in or bargain with the child the tantrums will get worse the next time. Because each time you give in you teach them this behavior is how I get my way. Instead calmly remind them of the expectations. This is a great time to empathize with the child’s feeling and letting them know it is ok to feel mad or sad. “I know you really love visiting the park and it makes you sad to leave”. But also reminding them it is not ok to be mean or scream. Insist that they speak to you respectfully and calmly. Remind them of the consequences you have in place for this behavior.
A meltdown can result from the same triggers, but the response and solutions are very different. Tantrums can even evolve into meltdowns. Emotions become so over overwhelming for the child and they visibly cannot get themselves calmed down. Even offering something the child loves will not work. A child may forget what cause them to get upset or may be unable to communicate it. For a meltdown the focus should be on helping your child de-escalate and waiting to address their behaviors after they are calm. With a meltdown the child may continue until they are worn out. Meltdowns can happen in overstimulating environments. They can also be contributed by the child being extremely hungry or tired. Addressing these issues will help, such as moving them to a quiet area. If you are struggling to manage your emotions it is ok to walk away if your child is in a safe place. A meltdown will end either because the child worn themselves out or successfully found a way to regulate their emotions.
3. Establishing Your Role with discipline
You can embrace discipline as an on-going educational course meant to guide your child through these developmental challenges. Your role is the professor and you must teach! When take your role as teacher it becomes less stressful for you and your child. Young children learn through repetition. Think about ways to prevent the behavior. Knowing that your child has a hard time with transitions, spend more time prior to the activity discussing what will take place and what your expectations are. For example, “We will be going to the park to play for 30 minutes, then we have to leave so I can cook dinner”. Remind the child of other fun activities that they can do at home. “While I cook dinner, you can have a snack and watch a cartoon.” You should even add conditions onto this. “If you leave the park without crying, then you can watch your favorite cartoon while having snack.” Setting your child up to earn positive consequences is very powerful. It will not work as much to bribe them with the cartoon after the tantrum. Yes, they may stop crying when you hand them the tablet to watch Micky Mouse but what message is being sent. I cried, kicked and screamed = I got something I want. Giving the child 10 or 5 minutes to conclude the activity they are involved in will also help them transition more smoothly. “You have 5 more minutes to play on the swing, then we are going home to get a snack.”
4. Practice Empathy and be Consistency
Acknowledging and understanding that your child needs your help to learn how to regulate their emotions. Your child experiences the same range of emotions that you do. As an adult you may have realized the importance of grabbing a snack before a long meeting at work. Missing that snack may mean you become irritable half way through the meeting. This may lead to you giving short responses or disengaging all together. Children have less control, less awareness and inability to communicate their needs. Their irritability due to hunger can turn into a 45 minute meltdown. Be consistent with your child’s sleep schedule and meal times. Lastly, grant yourself some empathy! Being a parent is challenging! Your child will not be 2 years old forever, this too shall pass.
5. Be the Example
Young children are visual/auditory learners and constantly watching you. The best way to encourage your children to say please and thank you is by hearing you say it to them and others. How do you handle anger when you are driving, and someone cuts you off? You do not have to be perfect by any means and the point is not to pretend you do not get angry. You want to practice the behaviors you expect in your child. If you yell and scream often then that is the behavior your child is learning to display. Be aware of how you and others are influencing your child’s behaviors.
6. Seek Additional Help
There are many resources available to help you reduce and prevent these behaviors. Your family and friends can be great resources. Many times, we get embarrassed or feel shame about our parenting struggles. But you are not alone and once you start talking with others you will gain the strength and reassurance needed to find solutions.
Though these behaviors are found to be a normal part of development they can also be a red flag that your child is dealing with additional challenges. It may be time to seek professional consultation if:
- Your child struggles with communication in which they lack words or displays constricted speech. (From 18-24 months most toddlers develop a vocabulary of 20 to 50 words. )
- Sensitivity to sensory stimulation in which your child becomes overly upset or displays the following: distressed if they get messy or getting dressed, wearing certain clothing, bothered by certain sounds (volume, quality or pitch), impulsively seeks sensation such as spinning or bumping into things.
- Your child has experienced or witnessed trauma.
- The frequency and intensity cause significant consequences in you and your child’s life:
- Avoidance in attending social or family events
- Missing work because behaviors cause disruption in childcare
- Behaviors causing distress in your health or relationship with spouse