At a glance
Tantrums and meltdowns can look similar but aren’t the same thing.
They need to be responded to differently.
Knowing why your child has tantrums or meltdowns can help you avoid them.
We’ve all seen kids upset and crying in a store or at the playground. Most families sympathize because they’ve been there with their own kids.
Many people assume what they’re seeing is a child throwing a tantrum, and that could be. But it might be a meltdown. And if you’ve ever experienced your child having a meltdown, you know that the two have to be dealt with differently.
Here are some strategies for taming tantrums and managing meltdowns.
Ways to tame a tantrum
It’s not unusual for young kids to have tantrums when they’re upset, angry, or frustrated, or when something doesn’t go their way. Tantrums are common, but being on the receiving end when kids lash out can be frustrating and hard to handle.
The good news is that tantrums are usually something kids have at least some control over. Many kids can change how they’re behaving based on how people around them are reacting. There are also ways to keep tantrums from happening in the first place.
Try these tips to stop tantrums in their tracks.
1. Agree on a frustration signal.
Talk with your child about what “getting frustrated” looks like from your point of view. Ask if there’s anything your child wants you to look for, too. Then come up with a signal to use when your child is getting frustrated, like pulling on your earlobe. Talk about what you'll both do to calm the situation when you use the signal.
2. Assign a calm space.
Find a place in your home that can be a designated calm space. It doesn’t have to be fancy. For example, it could simply be a chair your child likes to sit in. Explain this is a space for calming down, not a punishment space. Your child can go there to take a break when you use the frustration signal. (At first, you may need to remind your child there’s a place to go to calm down and regroup.)
3. Think about what’s causing the tantrum.
Using a signal or going to a calm space might not always do the trick. If you can't head off a tantrum, try to figure out what’s causing it. Knowing the source makes it easier to defuse in the moment. It also helps you both find better ways to avoid the situation next time.
4. Set clear expectations.
Be clear about how you expect your child to behave. Use when-then sentences like, “When you speak to me in a calmer voice, then we can talk this through.” This gives your child a choice about whether to follow through or not. (Download a when-then printable chart to fill in and use with your child.)
5. Acknowledge your child’s feelings.
Your child might be acting out, but that doesn’t mean your child’s feelings aren’t real. Try to be empathetic and help your child put names to those 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.”
6. Ignore it.
Sometimes the best reaction is no reaction. Maybe your child’s tantrum is fueled by the attention you give when you try to tame it. In those cases, it can be better to give some space and not respond at all.
7. Praise the behavior you want to see.
When your child gains control and calms down, let your child know it with praise. Give specifics about what your child did 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 a full-body reaction to being overwhelmed. They’re more extreme than tantrums, and kids aren’t in control of them.
Managing meltdowns is more complicated than taming tantrums. Knowing the triggers 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
1. Get to know your child’s triggers.
They’re not the same for every child, and your child may not be reacting to something obvious. For some kids, it might be emotional or sensory overload. For others, it might be unexpected changes, or pain and fear. Knowing your child’s triggers can make it easier to avoid meltdowns.
You may notice that your child gets anxious before school or falls apart at the end of the day. Or maybe meltdowns happen close to mealtimes or bedtime. In that case, hunger or fatigue may be triggers. Or you may notice that there are certain places where they happen, like noisy or crowded places.
2. Notice when it’s escalating.
If you catch the signs early enough, you might be able to help your child calm down before a full-blown meltdown occurs. Common warning signs are:
- 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 noises, sights, and other sensory things, or trying to run away or hide
- Moving restlessly, like fidgeting or pacing
- Complaining of physical issues like dizziness or heart pounding
3. Try to distract from the trigger.
For some kids, the escalation phase can be interrupted. It might help to distract your child with a different task or activity.
4. Be patient.
Your instinct may be to try to stop an escalation quickly. But talking fast and loud often makes 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.
During the meltdown
1. Do a safety assessment.
When your child is screaming and throwing things, it may feel like an emergency. But that doesn’t mean it is. The question to consider: Is anyone hurt or going to get hurt?
2. Be reassuring.
It takes trial and error to know if your child wants physical distance or a firm hug or touch. But keeping your voice and body language calm is helpful in either case. Make sure your child knows you’re there and that you understand that this may feel scary and out of control.
3. Give some space.
If you’re out in public, try to help your child move to a quieter place. If you’re at home, see if you can get your child to go to a spot that’s calm. If it’s not possible to move your child, ask other people to give you both some space.
4. Tone it down.
Turn down lights, keep things quiet, and try not to crowd your child. If you’re at home and your child isn’t able or willing to move, try standing off to the side. (Standing in the doorway can make kids feel blocked in.)
5. Consider your post-meltdown plan.
Start thinking about how to reengage with your child when the meltdown is over, rather than do something that starts it up again. You may need to abandon your shopping trip. If the meltdown was triggered by an emotional conversation, you may need to back away from that topic. You can find a new way to approach it the next time you talk about it.
After the meltdown
1. Take time to recover.
When calming down, your child might feel embarrassed or guilty. You’ll probably see physical exhaustion, too. Give your child some time to get collected.
2. Find the right time to talk.
You can help your child make sense of what happened. Right after a meltdown may not be the best time, though. When you’re both calm, here are some ways to approach it:
- Give your child a heads-up. Give advance notice that you’re going to talk and be reassuring that your child’s not in trouble.
- Be brief. Talking about a meltdown can make kids feel bad and defensive. Say what you need to say, but try to avoid saying the same thing over and over.
- Make sure your child understands. Ask your child to tell you what you talked about and answer any questions. If you’ve decided on an action plan, see if your child can repeat it for you.
Managing meltdowns and taming tantrums takes practice. Learning to recognize the signs and teaching your child coping skills can help you both find better ways to respond in the future.
Assigning a “calm space” can help with both tantrums and meltdowns.
Ignoring a tantrum can sometimes stop it.
Learning your child’s triggers can help keep a meltdown from escalating.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Vanessa M. Pastore, MA is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration. She has a private clinic in New York City.