by: gretchen glass LMFT
Good day parents, caregivers and helpers alike. When it comes to spending time with any toddler there are inevitable ups and downs to the day. Lately, it seems that we are at odds with how to be helpful to children while they are having tantrums. First, I feel like it is important to be clear about the definition of a tantrum versus a meltdown. A tantrum is when a child’s behavior becomes unruly due to being told no, or that they cannot have or do something. A meltdown is when a child does not want anything and his or her behavior becomes unruly.
So the million dollar question is; how do we support a child when they are having a meltdown or a tantrum? The short answer is that you do as little as possible. I mean it.
I remember sitting in supervision as a grad student and I asked my supervisor, what do I do when a kid is having a fit? His response shocked me, he said “you let the child have the fit.” This phrase has stuck with me for the past 7 years. In that moment, he was helping me understand that children just like adults need to feel, need to be expressive and that one of the most helpful things we can do is to give children permission to be human.
Now, we all have our way of tackling meltdowns and tantrums but I am willing to offer you a few pointers. I know that you know your child best so please feel free to adjust to the needs of your family. Behavior is communication. Say it with me “behavior is communication.”
The situation: Mom is about to leave the house and she must leave to make it on time to an appointment. Younger children often have a hard time when a primary parent or caregiver leaves the home and thus can lead to a tantrum or meltdown.
1.) Proceed with caution:
Validate the child’s emotions. If a young child is sad that his or her parent is leaving the home explain that it is normal and okay to miss mom while they are gone. Reassure the child that the parent will return shortly. Mom and or dad here’s where you come in, give your little one a hug and set them down, and leave them with the caregiver or other parents.
2.) Entering the danger zone:
Parent or caregiver, here’s where the work gets interesting. Check in with the child. Ask them if they need anything and let them know that you are there for them. This provides emotional support. Validate the child’s feelings by saying, it is okay to miss mom or dad. Maybe you can mention a time when you felt the same way. In this moment, there might be loud crying, perhaps some spitting and flailing. It’s acceptable to walk away and give a child space to navigate those tough feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety etc. In my experience if you pursue a child while they are in their ‘animal brain’ or hyped up, it only makes things worse. Can you make clear decisions while you are screaming at the top of your lungs? I know that I am incapable of decision making as an adult when I am in my animal brain, so why do we force our children to make choices when they are screaming or crying hysterically? It is okay for a child to be emotionally expressive and cry. It is important for them to learn how to calm down. Also, check in with yourself. Are you okay? Are you uncomfortable with the situation, reassure yourself that if the child is safe it is okay to give space
3.) Getting to calm:
As time passes children will often calm down. Talk with the child. This is the time to offer a hug, insist on having a snack and drinking some water. Have you ever screamed or lost your shit before? I have, and afterwards I am exhausted. Snack. Restoring energy can be the difference between baiting another melt down and a full recovery. Talk about apologies. Any behavior correcting and discipline can be done during this time as well. Did little Annie throw toys during her tantrum? Gently remind her that those toys need to be cleaned up.
Good luck and remember the work that you do is important-