Ashley Thurn , MS,OTR/L
AUGUST 10, 2017
We've all been there. It's time to leave the party and your three-year-old is having an epic meltdown in front of a sea of onlookers. Instead of using your calm, understanding voice that you've been practicing from your positive parenting books, you end up yelling and carrying your child out kicking and screaming. Then of course as soon as your sweet babe is tucked in and sleeping you start free falling into the pits of mom guilt, wondering how you could have handled things differently.
While I can't promise to rid you of mom guilt, I do hope I can help you and your little one cut down on the drama and come to a place of better connection and understanding of one another.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, I am well versed in managing tantrums. In all my experience managing meltdowns, I truly believe that language skills and the comprehension of language are the missing pieces that so often lead to a frustrated child.
In my practice, I have seen children who have gone from throwing tantrums multiple times a day transform into children who are calm and content just by learning basic words to express their needs.
Since young children often don’t understand much of what is going on around them, it is our job as parents to explain it to them and help them feel somewhat in control of their world.
I know you're busy. I know you're (beyond) tired. I know you feel like you downright just don't have enough time for this but when you and your child aren't seeing eye-to-eye, just remember to put yourself in their shoes and try to come to a better place of communication and understanding of one another.
So, without further ado, here are my top recommendations for minimizing meltdowns through communication and connection.
1. Prepare them for upcoming events & changes in schedule.
Prepare, prepare, prepare! This is hands down, my number one recommendation on how to minimize tantrums. If you don't remember any other steps, remember this one. Tell them what is on the agenda for the day. Tell them specific things about the environment that they are about to walk in to. If you’re going grocery shopping, fill them in on what you are going there to buy and what you’re NOT going there to buy. If you're on your way to a restaurant, a simple review of the "rules of the restaurant" would be helpful. I know my son has a very hard time using an inside voice and sitting vs standing on his chair when we eat out, so we talk about it on our way there. If you normally go to the playground after school but today you can't because you have to pick up dry cleaning, tell your child about this change in routine ahead of time/in the morning instead of surprising them at the last minute with this schedule change. Car rides are a great place to review agenda and/or changes in routines as you have a captive audience.
2. Set a routine.
Do your best to set times for meals, naps and bedtimes and try to stick with the plan. Kids thrive off routines because they like knowing what to expect. If they know what to expect, they won't have a need to protest.
Have you ever sat in on a preschool classroom? There is a reason it is scheduled to the minute, it would be total chaos if not! Not to mention setting a routine is going to help you organize your day for yourself (need some "me time" anyone?!). Nap time schedules and regular meal times help tremendously with minimizing tantrums. Goodbye tired or hangry tot & hello well rested angel! Have a schedule but still allow room for flexibility because let’s be honest, we all know with kids things don't always go as planned.
3. Teach basic words.
This is SO important for our little ones that are still non-verbal! The more they understand about what is happening in their world, the more they feel in control and the less likely they will protest.
Children can begin comprehending routinely used words way sooner than you would expect (anywhere from 9-15 months). So, talk to them about everything! If they understand words such as "all done" "bye bye" you can see how this would apply to leaving the playground vs. (from their perspective) mid-play being pulled into a car seat. (i.e. "All done playground, bye bye playground!”) This especially helped my daughter when it came to her nap time. She knew key words such as "blanket" "nap time" and "time to lay down" as cues before I laid her down in her crib and this significantly cut down the nap time protesting.
4. Transitions are hard.
Transitioning from one activity to the next is the number one reason why children throw tantrums and the good news is it is very easy to re-mediate. It’s the getting in and out of the car, the leaving the playground, etc. We help children learn how to transition from one activity to the next without getting upset so much in therapy. The easiest way for a verbal child with good comprehension skills is to give a simple 5-minute warning (counting down the minutes if necessary). However, I have found that most all kids thrive off of using a visual timer that beeps when the time is up. (cue Iphone) Example: "We are leaving the playground in five minutes to get ready for dinner. When the phone beeps that means it’s time to go." You would be surprised at how easily your child will pack up and go when they hear the beep. It works because it is preparing them for the transition.
5. Let them finish!
This one is a hard one (for me at least) but it is important. Patience is a virtue people! And boy it sure doesn't come naturally to me. But you have to put yourself in your child's shoes. If they are in the middle of a puzzle with 5 pieces left but you want to leave to go to the store, try looking at the scenario from their perspective instead of yours. If you were smack dab in the middle of something at work and a colleague demanded you got up to do something right this second, I am sure you would feel like protesting too. Just let them finish! Yes, this means you will have to wait. Patience is the art of waiting. The art of giving the other person enough time to react, respond or finish what they're doing. If you want patient children, you need to be practicing patience with them.
6. Trust them more.
We learned this term in OT school that I always love to say because it makes me chuckle and it’s called being a "helicopter mom." Usually it applies to parents of children with disabilities, who have learned to shield their child from any struggle or challenge that may come their way. Obviously, I'm not only speaking to parents of children with disabilities but you get the point. Don't be a helicopter mom. Let them make mistakes!
Be there to supervise when you know dangers are present. Learning through making mistakes is okay and its natural! For example, I had to let my 15-month-old daughter learn the hard way not to play with the water facet during her bath. Of course, I was there to make sure she wasn't going to burn herself but she must have turned the hot water on 50 times before I realized there was no talking her out of it. So, I let her do it. She touched the water briefly and then stepped away from the faucet immediately. Now she knows not to touch the hot water side and we no longer have bath time battles. The bonus was that she learned what the word "hot" means. Some may call this lazy parenting, I call it genius.
7. Listen to and respond to their cues.
Just because they're small, it doesn't mean their needs and desires shouldn't carry any weight. They need to be heard in order to feel validated and loved. If they're yawning and rubbing their eyes but you want to bring them out somewhere in public, then don't get upset with them when they start having a meltdown at the grocery store over not buying Cheez-its.
Just try to understand where they're coming from, kids turn into unreasonable maniacs when they're overtired. Maybe you let them take a 20-minute power nap before you go. Another example would be a baby who is eating and you ask them if they want another bite and they turn their head away from the spoon. If they could talk, they would be saying "no" so listen! If they feel understood, they’re not going to have a need to protest.
8. Give them a choice.
This is my go-to for my own kids. Giving a choice helps a frustrated child regain some control over his/her situation. It plays out like this. Your child is having a hard time, griping and complaining about a situation and you can see this is about to turn into a meltdown drama. Instead of saying no, create two scenarios that they can choose from, both of which you would be fine with them choosing. Here is an example. Your child requests macaroni and cheese for dinner but you have other, more healthy plans. Instead of saying no, you can say, “We can’t have macaroni tonight but we can have it sometime this weekend. Should I cook it on Saturday or Sunday?” Either choice makes the child feel satisfied with a bit of control, and you still choose what’s for dinner. It’s a win, win. Dr. Laura Markham gives great examples for choices on her website Aha! Parenting.
9. Simplify your life.
Us moms are all guilty of trying to do everything under the sun while often pretending like we don't have children to factor into the equation. Maybe you're just trying to do too much. Maybe you need to come to terms with the fact that you can't be as productive as you once were or enjoy the same types of leisure that you used to. I realized for me, two outings in one day with little ones is too much for us right now in this season of motherhood. Kids get stressed out just like we do when there is too much going on, too many demands being placed on them. Sometimes you just need to let them be. Play in the backyard for the day, go for a walk, do things that are simple are require less stress, demands and planning. Less demands equals less to protest about.
10. Know when it’s okay to let them have a good cry.
As a parent, it is important to realize there is a difference between a child who is throwing a tantrum and a child who is crying because they're hurting on the inside. And you need to be okay with that.
My son threw an enormous (what I thought was a tantrum) full of crying, sobbing and throwing markers this morning because he colored something purple that was supposed to be pink. I tried everything imaginable to help him feel better and to let him know it's okay to make mistakes. I told stories of my childhood from when I had made mistakes and I tried to help him not give up. I tried coloring everything else on the page different colors and told him it's now a silly rainbow picture. I told him we could put an X over the mistake and keep coloring the rest of the page.
But he was still terribly upset and nothing I did could change that. The bottom line was that he was very upset because he had made a mistake, something that couldn't be undone in his case (since markers don't erase.)
And I have to admit I have been there before. Many times. Mad at myself for a mistake I made that couldn't be undone. Wishing so badly I could go back in time and do things differently but knowing regrettably that would be impossible.
So, what's a mother to do when she wishes she could take away the hurt but can't? I realized right then and there that I needed to stop trying to make things better and just let him cry. Let him know I understand how he feels. That I've been there too and that's how life goes sometimes. That I have navigated through life for 32 years and making mistakes is still hard for me too. And that all you can do is learn from your mistakes and try again next time. And so, I decided that the best thing I could do for my son was allow him to feel the hurt and give him the comfort and steadfast love that only a mother could provide.
So, that's it! My hope is that through implementing some of these strategies, you and your little ones can enjoy more joy and peace in your relationship with one another and say goodbye to all the drama!