Think Ahead and Avoid a Meltdown

Clearly, that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. The mother muttered fiercely, “Get up off the floor!” When that didn’t produce a positive response, she turned to coaxing: “Please be a good little boy for Mommy.”

Next came the bribery attempt: “If you mind now, I’ll buy you that video you’ve been wanting.”

Out of desperation came the threats: “Get up now or you can forget about TV and treats for the rest of the week! I’m counting to three, and you’d better be up before that!”

The little boy holle-red, and the mother seemed to stall as if predicting an even more embarrassing tantrum to come. A pregnant silence blanketed the aisle, and then the mother gave in and handed the boy a candy bar.

Parents often find it difficult to follow through and implement disciplinary techniques.

Typically, parents cave in on rules and don’t follow through with consequences. Unfortunately, children quickly learn that acting out can often earn them what they want. That’s not the only problem that arises when parents are too permissive. Failure to follow through with consequences robs children of the opportunity to develop resiliency and the self-confidence to solve problems and handle disappointment.

So what’s a parent to do?

Start with recognizing attention-seeking behavior. We identify those actions by making ourselves aware that when we feel annoyed, our child is displaying attention-seeking behavior.

Children crave attention, so making a big deal out of minor misbehavior will only reinforce that it’s an effective way to get your attention. If parents ignore such behavior, the children soon realize this isn’t going to get the attention they seek, and the behavior will fade away in time.

Begin thinking ahead about your child’s needs by maintaining a child-friendly environment. If you plan to do the weekly shopping — something that is ground zero for misbehavior — prepare some activities that will occupy your child during this outing. Small children can identify the fruits in the produce section by describing the color, shape and size of each object. Older children can help locate items on the shopping list.

Some quality time spent organizing some distractions can turn a high-tension task into a bearable outing for an antsy child — and, in turn, prevent the need for discipline on the parent’s part.

Utilizing choices with children offers them some control over small decisions and will help even a younger child feel that his desires are being taken into account. For example: “Do you want bananas or apples?” “Would you like to check out two books or three?” This approach validates the child’s feelings and will often prevent his need to whine or act out to be heard. Choices are also invaluable in teaching children about making good decisions.

If your 6-year-old insists on wearing a sweatshirt in 98-degree weather, he’ll probably make a different decision next time, and the parents will have the burden of enforcing discipline taken off their shoulders.

Children under the age of 4 are easy to distract when you take their focus off the heated subject at hand. For instance, your toddler refuses to get into the stroller. As a parent you can argue the issue, but how about belting out a few lyrics to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” instead?

Your preschool-aged twins are fighting over a toy. You could just take the toy away from them, but what about giving them some Play-Doh instead? It may seem simple, but for young children, distracting them is better than scolding anytime.

Parents can take control of their children’s environment by setting some rules to ensure that before misbehavior happens and discipline is needed, they have some well-thought-out guidelines to follow.

Step One: Be realistic.

 Parents must first recognize what their child is developmentally capable of understanding before expectations can be established.  For instance, 3-year-olds lack the maturity and the social experience to share well with other children. As a parent, if you insist on sharing regularly, your child will likely rebel, and you will find yourself fighting for cooperation.

Step Two: Know yourself.

 Know your limits. Only set rules that you’re willing to be inflexible on, like no hitting. As parents, we may dream of a world where our children pick up after themselves every day — but if you know you’ll give in when they push back, scrap picking up after themselves as mandatory or amend the rule in such a way that you can manage it. For instance, you might say that picking up after themselves must happen, but you’ll help as needed.

Step Three: Make it official

  Establish a regular family meeting that includes all family members. Use it as an opportunity to establish house rules that everyone can agree upon. Allow everyone — including children — to participate in the procedure.  By allowing children to offer up ideas and help with designing the list and selecting the place to post it, parents are validating their children’s place in the family.

Children who take part in this process are more likely to follow the agreed-upon rules. If they break a rule, parents can direct them back to the agreement they helped create.  

There is no manual to refer to when our children are born. We simply must rely on what we were taught, but we also must be willing to learn as we go. If we, the parents, flounder when our children have a major meltdown, the behavior will continue; but if we plan ahead, we put the odds for good behavior in our favor by being prepared and keeping the environment child-friendly.

Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies. The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.

The Terrible Twos – Myth or Reality?

boy kicking toys
© Jon Whittle

Two-year-olds get all the buzz, but the truth is, tantrums and mayhem can strike at any age, for a variety of reasons. “Most toddlers begin testing limits shortly after their first birthday and continue until about age four,” says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411.

So how did the Terrible Twos become such a pop-parenting phenomenon? “It’s an old-fashioned idea and not supported by research,” says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Center at Yale University. The term was coined in the 1950s, perhaps because so much pressure was put on families to be detergent-commercial perfect that the moment a child grew out of compliant infancy, moms were freaked out. But modern parents agree—every kid is different, and every year presents new joys and challenges. Read on for a fresh perspective on each stage.

Age 1

What’s to Love: They can be wonderfully cuddly. And since many 1-year-olds haven’t yet realized the power of the word “no” to antagonize you, they can often be more compliant than their 2- to 4-year-old sibs. Their distractible nature means you can get them to stop fiddling with the oven knob by giving them a pot and a spoon to bang with.

What’s Tough About It: Establishing good sleep patterns is still a struggle throughout this year, as you drop the morning nap, lengthen the midday one, and solidify bedtime. All that snooze drama can make for an overtired, cranky kid. In addition, his limited vocabulary makes for misunderstandings. (He says “nana.” You put him on the phone with Nana Helen. He wanted a banana. Cue meltdown.)

How To Make the Most of It: They need about 13 hours of sleep (11 at night and 2 during the day), so try to make it happen, suggests Bronwyn Charlton, Ph.D., co-founder of SeedlingsGroup, a collective of child-development experts in New York City. Inadequate sleep stacks the deck against you: A tired toddler is a cranky toddler.

Age 2

What’s to Love: There’s no denying it—2-year-olds are stinking cute! Their curiosity about the world is infectious. And while they certainly get into trouble, their mishaps feel accidental, making them easier to forgive.

What’s Tough About It: Two-year-olds are fully mobile. Translation: They’re into everything. And that means this is the first time you’ve had to set limits (no climbing the bookcase, crossing the street, or picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk). Your child has never heard “no” so many times in her short life—and she doesn’t like it. To top it all off, 2-year-olds don’t yet have the language to express feelings, so they resort to pitching fits. Their young brains can’t handle extreme emotions without going a bit haywire.

How to Make The Most of It: Praise often: “You didn’t throw any toys today! Great job!” When she blows her stack, ignore her, as long as she isn’t hurting anyone. Yelling or attempts to subdue—even with affection—make tantrums last longer. Kazdin notes that a tantrum is a futile time for discipline. “Wait until your child is able to absorb what you say.”

What’s Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams

Anatomy Of A Tantrum

Source: YouTube (by permission),

Credit: NPR

Children’s temper tantrums are widely seen as many things: the cause of profound helplessness among parents; a source of dread for airline passengers stuck next to a young family; a nightmare for teachers. But until recently, they had not been considered a legitimate subject for science.

Now research suggests that, beneath all the screams and kicking and shouting, lies a phenomenon that is entirely amenable to scientific dissection. Tantrums turn out to have a pattern and rhythm to them. Once understood, researchers say, this pattern can help parents, teachers and even hapless bystanders respond more effectively to temper tantrums — and help clinicians tell the difference between ordinary tantrums, which are a normal part of a child’s development, and those that may be warning signals of an underlying disorder.

The key to a new theory of tantrums lies in a detailed analysis of the sounds that toddlers make during tantrums. In a new paper published in the journal Emotion, scientists found that different toddler sounds – or “vocalizations” – emerge and fade in a definite rhythm in the course of a tantrum.

“We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind,” said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota, half in jest and half seriously.


The first challenge was to collect tantrum sounds, says co-author James A. Green of the University of Connecticut.

“We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear that has a high-quality wireless microphone sewn into it,” Green said. “Parents put this onesie on the child and press a go button.”

The wireless microphone fed into a recorder that ran for several hours. If the toddler had a meltdown during that period, the researchers obtained a high-quality audio recording. Over time, Green and Potegal said they collected more than a hundred tantrums in high-fidelity audio.

The scientists then analyzed the audio. They found that different tantrum sounds had very distinct audio signatures. When the sounds were laid down on a graph, the researchers found that different sounds emerged and faded in a definite pattern. Unsurprisingly, sounds like yelling and screaming usually came together.

“Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together,” Potegal said. “Throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together. Combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort — and these also hang together.”

But where one age-old theory of tantrums might suggest that meltdowns begin in anger (yells and screams) and end in sadness (cries and whimpers), Potegal found that the two emotions were more deeply intertwined.

“The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect,” Potegal said. “In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.”

Understanding that tantrums have a rhythm can not only help parents know when to intervene, but also give them a sense of control.

Green and Potegal found that sad sounds tended to occur throughout tantrums. Superimposed on them were sharp peaks of yelling and screaming: anger.

The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible, Potegal said, was to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger, the scientists said, was to do nothing. Of course, that isn’t easy for parents or caregivers to do.

“When I’m advising people about anger, I say, ‘There’s an anger trap,”’ Potegal said.

Even asking questions can prolong the anger — and the tantrum.

That’s what parents Noemi and David Doudna of Sunnyvale, Calif., found. Their daughter Katrina once had a meltdown at dinnertime because she wanted to sit at one corner of the dining table. Problem was, the table didn’t have any corners – it was round. When David Doudna asked Katrina where she wanted to sit, the tantrum only intensified.

“You know, when children are at the peak of anger and they’re screaming and they’re kicking, probably asking questions might prolong that period of anger,” said Green. “It’s difficult for them to process information. And to respond to a question that the parent is asking them may be just adding more information into the system than they can really cope with.”

In a video of the tantrum that Noemi Doudna posted on YouTube, Katrina’s tantrum intensified to screaming, followed by the child throwing herself to the floor and pushing a chair against a wall.

“Tantrums tend to often have this flow where the buildup is often quite quick to a peak of anger,” Green said.

Understanding that tantrums have a rhythm can not only help parents know when to intervene, but also give them a sense of control, Green said.

That’s because, when looked at scientifically, tantrums are no different than thunderstorms or other natural phenomena. Studying them as scientific subjects rather than experiencing them like parents can cause the tantrums to stop feeling traumatic and even become interesting.

“When we’re walking down the street or see a child having a tantrum, I comment on the child’s technique,” Potegal said. “[I] mutter to my family, ‘Good data,’ and they all laugh.”

Noemi Doudna said she now looks back on Katrina’s tantrums and sees the humor in them.

Katrina often demanded things that made no sense in the course of tantrums, Noemi Doudna said. She once said, “’I don’t want my feet. Take my feet off. I don’t want my feet. I don’t want my feet!’”

When nothing calmed the child down, Noemi Doudna added, “I once teased her — which turned out to be a big mistake — I once said, ‘Well, OK, let’s go get some scissors and take care of your feet.’”

Her daughter’s response, Noemi Doudna recalled, was a shriek: “Nooooo!!”

Ron Huxley’s Reaction: I enjoyed this story on several levels: 1. It helps parents normalize a very frustrating behavior problem and informs them that the best thing they can do is “nothing.” I would add that “nothing” doesn’t mean no empathy. Sit with the child and make sure they don’t hurt themselves accidently but don’t give them any extra attention either. This makes it worse. 2. It links the emotional connection between anger and sadness. Anger is a very irrational behavior that is pure emotional brain with no logic. Anger pushes others away. Sadness draws them closer and is usually what underlies the harsher, more energetic emotion of anger.

OK, one more point: 3. A child’s nervous system is literally trained by an empathic but non-attention getting response to a child’s tantrum. The cause of tantrums is an undeveloped nervous system that requires external input to develop regulation and self-control. That is the job of the parents. Have fun 🙂