Parenting can be the most rewarding job ever, but it also can be one of the hardest, like when the child you love dearly is spinning out of control.
It happens to every parent. Just remember to breathe, and try these strategies to get your kid – and yourself - back on track.
1. Know the signs. It’s much easier to stop a meltdown in its tracks if you see it coming. “Tantrums are like dominoes,” says Houston psychologist James H. Bray, PhD. “Once a few fall, they’re all going to fall.”
Learn the signs that your child is getting worked up. Then, you can teach him to see them, too.
2. Distract little ones. Diversions often can help children 3 and younger. Show them a toy, or start an activity to shift attention and head off a tantrum.
At this age, kids don’t understand the concept of cause and effect, so discussions aren’t effective.
3. Take a break. Removing your child from whatever’s getting him worked up. This gives him a chance to calm down and soothe himself, which is an important skill to learn.
Have young kids lie down with a favorite toy or sit on the couch. Older kids can be taught self-soothing strategies like taking a deep breath, counting to five or ten before talking, or distracting themselves,Bray says.
4. Show self-control. “The hardest thing is to remain calm and not engage,” Bray says. If you feel yourself getting upset, step back, take a deep breath, and give yourself time to regroup.
“Kids are going to learn much more from their parents’ behavior than from what they say,” he says.
5. Speak firmly. Explain what you need from your child, but don’t lecture or yell.
Be firm and set boundaries. “Remind your child that this is the rule. Do it in a calm way rather than getting emotional,” Bray says.
If your child misbehaves and you give him a hug because you think it’ll calm him down, it will reinforce bad behavior.
6. Use humor. “Humor is often a good defuser,” says Gail Saltz, MD. She's an associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell School of Medicine. “If you see things going in a downhill direction, being able to do something a little silly or funny can help.”
Teasing, though, is always a no-no. There’s never a good reason to make fun of your child, call him names, or humiliate him.
7. Talk about feelings. Young kids often have trouble talking about their emotions. They might not even know what they’re feeling, and that can add to their frustration.
Help your child understand and talk about his feelings. Teach him that everyone gets upset sometimes, and it’s OK to talk about it, Saltz says.
Ask questions like “What happened?” and “Do you feel sad?” Ask him for ideas for things that will help him calm down.
“This is how you start to help a child get in touch with his feelings and talk about it as opposed to acting out,” Saltz says.
8. Team up. Get on the same side. Saltz suggests saying: “I know this is hard for you. Let’s try to figure out what can make things easier.”
If he wants something, give him a choice, but don’t just give in, Bray says. Say, “Do you want to take a bath now or in 5 minutes?” or “Would you like to clean your room now or after you watch your TV show?”
9. Identify the cause. If you notice a lot of meltdowns, look at what else is going on in your child’s world.
“He might have too many stressors or more activities than he can manage," Saltz says. “Consider rolling back.”
He might be upset about something else, like a recent change in his life. Saltz suggests trying this: Ask your child to draw a picture or play a game where he acts out a situation using dolls. This can help him work out his feelings and give you a better idea of what’s bothering him.
10. Get help. If your child acts out frequently, takes backward steps in things like potty training or sleeping through the night, or resists going to school or doing activities he usually likes, it may be a sign that he has anxiety. A professional therapist can help.