Q. How can I help calm my child down during a tantrum or emotional melt-down?
A. By Casherie Bright, Founding Partner
Not all tantrums are created equal. Some tantrums are small and require little help from parents, while others are massive, all-out nightmares. The child’s age makes a big difference in how parents should respond to tantrums. As a counselor and a mother of four (including two adopted children), I’ve seen more than my fair share of tantrums and have found that the following techniques work with my children.
Tantrums in Ages 1-3
This kind of tantrum includes small things such as whining, pouting or feet stomping. It usually last 3-5 minutes. Ideally, we stop a small tantrum in its tracks before it turns into a full-scale tantrum. Things that work with my children are to:
- Immediately put them in time-out and let them know that when they are calm, they can come out of time-out. Time-out at my house is on the stairs in the living room. I can still see them and respond to their needs. They are only in time-out for as long as it takes them to calm down. I don’t do timers for this age.
- If we aren’t somewhere that a time-out is easily accessible, I try the counting deal: “If you can be calm by the count of 3, you don’t have to go to time-out.” Or, “If you can calm down, we don’t have to leave the store,” etc. You have to actually mean it and be willing to follow through with leaving the store (or other place) if they don’t calm down. This has been tested enough times at my house that my kids believe me. We will literally walk out of the store and leave a cart full of groceries if one of my kids starts to tantrum and won’t calm down.
- Help calm with scent. If a tantrum is small and the child is in time-out and still struggling, I will put lavender or frankincense essential oil on the back of their neck or wrists.
- If oils don’t help and they are still upset, I get them a small drink of water in their sippy cup. Sometimes young kids are thirsty or hungry and they don’t know to tell you.
- In my home, my children know when they ask for something and I say no, they have to say “okay.” If they pout or whine I remind them, “Remember, you are supposed to say ‘okay’ when Mommy says no.” Then they have to say “okay” to come out of time-out.
- Once they are calm, I ask them, “Why are you in time out?” and if they don’t know I will tell them, “It’s because you didn’t say ‘okay’” or “Because you threw a fit,” “You hit your brother” or whatever the reason is.
A medium tantrum is one that lasts 5-10 minutes. This typically involves stomping feet, kicking, screaming and/or crying. At this age, it’s not typical to see too much damage from a tantrum. Usually the child won’t willingly go to time-out and is not responding to smaller helps such as oils and a drink.
- In this stage the first thing I do is get the other children away from this child. My other children are not tantrumming and are still following directions. I want to get the other children away because my tantrumming child may hurt the other children and may be feeding off of the attention from the behaving children. (In group homes, we call this a 5-second rule, where the other children have five seconds to leave the area.)
- Once the other children are away, I put myself in check. Am I calm? Am I responding appropriately? I may not be, so I may distract myself from the child who is acting out by checking my phone or reading Facebook. But I stay physically present with the child to ensure they don’t break anything. I tell the child, “When you are calm, I will listen to your side.”
- Then I let the child know they need to go to time-out. If they don’t go, I don’t engage in a power struggle. I just repeat the same instruction. “You need to go to time-out” and “When you’re calm and in time-out, I will listen to you.”
- If the child becomes aggressive (hitting, kicking, biting, etc.), I will gently hold the child until they stop tantrumming. If it gets to this stage, I suggest you work with a therapist on what this should look like for your 1-3 year-old child. This is a gentle hold, more like a hug. The second they stop hitting or kicking, you let go. If they are only hitting, you will gently hold their hand until they stop hitting. If they are kicking, try to only hold their legs.
- Try using oils, offering a drink, etc. once the child is starting to calm down. Talk to the child in a soothing voice. Remind them that you care about them but you’re still not happy with their behavior. Once they are calm, let them know what their consequence is, such as cleaning up the mess they made, saying “sorry” to siblings, etc. Make these consequences easy for a toddler to accomplish. Say, “I’ll help you clean up your mess, but we have to work together.” Sometimes being overwhelmed by the consequence can cause them to start to tantrum again. If this happens, go back to steps for a small or medium tantru,.
At ages 1-3 you shouldn’t typically see a major tantrum. They are not developmentally able to do significant property damage, self-harm or bodily harm to others. If your child is tantrumming in this category due to neglect, abuse, Autism or developmental delays, work with a therapist on how to appropriately restrain or give consequences to your child.
Tantrums in Ages 4-8
A small tantrum for this age is similar to a small tantrum for younger ages; the parent’s reactions are basically the same. You remind them that the expectation is that they stay calm, they are to say “okay” when told no and they have a chance to change their attitude.
If they continue to tantrum for longer than 2-3 minutes, I have them sit in time-out until they are calm. The only consequence is sitting in time-out.
A medium tantrum for ages 4-8 will typically include some aggression, such as kicking a wall or sibling, stomping feet, slamming doors or lots of crying. For this age, I ask the child to go to their room until they are calm. In this stage they are still a little bit cooperative and will listen. They only need to be in their room until they are calm. They may slam their bedroom door. It’s fine. The important thing to remember here is that they are still learning to control their emotions and are processing a lot of emotions.
Once they are in their room and you can tell they are calming down, you can go into their room and ask them why they are in trouble and what they could’ve done differently. This is a good time to give them a soothing oil such as lavender or frankincense. There are also supplements that can help kids with being calm, and we advise you talk to a doctor or pharmacist about what supplements may be helpful.
If you can tell a medium or large tantrum is coming, you can try to give oils or supplements sooner, but sometimes you can’t tell these are going to happen. If you are in public, I advise you to leave immediately. The more consistently you do this, the more they will believe you. My children have had enough experiences at Walmart and Chuck-E-Cheese to know that I will gladly leave Lagoon in the middle of the day. The deal is, if we’re somewhere fun and if they calm down in the car, we will go back. IF they stay upset, we will not go back.
Believe me, this is not fun. One time we had a foster child (7-year-old) screaming that we were kidnapping her while we were leaving Lagoon because she was tantrumming. Once in the car, we gave her some lavender oil, got her a drink, turned on the air conditioner and made the agreement that she would be calm or we would leave for the rest of the day. She calmed down and we went back into the park.
Unfortunately, larger tantrums are more common for this age, especially for children who have experienced abuse and neglect or who have developmental delays. I still advise working directly with a therapist on what steps to take. You will need to determine “How long do I let them tantrum?” and “What damage should I let them do?”
Sometimes these tantrums involve property damage or self-harm, such as head banging, scratching or biting. This stage typically will involve a parent doing a physical restraint and possibly having police involvement if the child cannot be managed, but when to restrain and involve police should be determined with a therapist.
Try to get other siblings in a secure place so that you can manage the tantrumming child. One of our children would do massive damage, and at the time we also had a baby. We had a safety plan (created with our therapist) that I would take the baby to a caring neighbor’s home because I was often home alone, and then I would come back to tantrumming child and restrain her or take other necessary steps.
Everyone in your home needs to be safe, and the safety of the non-tantrumming children is your first concern. Once they are in a safe place, then you can focus on the child that is tantrumming. After the child is calm, you can work on consequences and repairing damage.
Tantrums in Ages 8-13
Small and Medium Tantrums
I find that the advice for younger ages tends to work for this age group. The only difference is, a child at this age will say, “Mom you’re treating me like a baby” and I will reply, “When you act your age, I’ll treat you your age. If you don’t want to go to time-out like a 2-year-old, don’t whine and pout like a 2-year-old.” It may not be the most therapeutic thing to say, but it’s the truth.
Pay attention to how often a child this age is tantrumming. If they are having small tantrums daily, there’s probably a deeper problem. If they are having medium tantrums 2-3 times a week, there is probably a deeper problem. Depression and anxiety are often displayed as anger or tantrumming behaviors. Meeting with a therapist or psychiatrist is a great idea at this point if emotional outbursts are happening frequently.
Major tantrums in ages 8-13 are similar to those in younger ages. However, you are less likely to be able to restrain them appropriately. A therapist can guide you to develop a safety plan to help control behaviors. A child who is having major tantrums frequently will likely need therapy and medication. They could benefit from a brain map to identify problem areas in the brain and neurofeedback brain training to specifically target those areas for improved behavior. There are fast-acting medications that can be used with this age group to help de-escalate, but the child has to be compliant enough to actually take the medications.
Tantrums in Ages 13-17
Small and Medium Tantrums
I am much more likely to send a teenager to their room than other age groups. They will get more consequences for a medium tantrum, especially if it involves swearing at me. I typically will have them complete a chore for each swear word. I will use natural/logical consequences to help them to learn. I will remind them that I still love them but don’t approve of their choices.
At this age, a large tantrum is a big deal. It typically will involve self-harm or self-injury, harm to others or suicidal threats. This is the age that is hardest to manage without help. If I can tell a big tantrum is coming, I will often encourage a child to call a crisis line (Davis Behavioral Health: 801-773-7060) or call a friend, go for a walk, etc. I will not give consequences at this age until they are completely calm.
- If they are not calming down on their own and will not call a crisis line, I call the crisis line and tell them what’s going on.
- If the child poses an immediate risk or danger, I call the police.
- If they run away, I call the police.
- If the child makes suicidal threats or hurts themselves and is agreeable, I have them either call their therapist, crisis line, or go straight to the emergency room.
Too many children and teens are dying from suicide. Don’t take self-harm or suicidal threats lightly. They are serious and require a serious response. I let them know I love them and would be devastated if anything ever happened to them, and I have to take them seriously.
What to Do After the Tantrum Is Over?
It’s hard to answer this generally, because each child is different and has unique needs. I like to work on the relationship I have with them. I remind them I love them and care about them. I remind them that I know they can make good choices and I am proud of them when they make good choices. I have them practice acting out the appropriate behavior, saying “okay” when told no or using a coping skill. I may give them a vitamin. I give them a hug and tell them what things they need to do to fix the problem (consequences).
Once their consequence is over, I drop it. We don’t bring it back up. Each day is a new day. Once a tantrum is over and we’ve resolved the consequences, we don’t rub it in their face or let siblings rub it in. We tell them to “drop it” and “move on.” Everyone makes mistakes. Some kids make more mistakes then others and make more mistakes more frequently.
The most important thing for parents to remember is to keep yourself in check during a tantrum. Sometimes our kids try to get a reaction out of us and want us to lash out at them. Sometimes they even seem like they are “asking for it” or “asking to be hit.” Kids don’t want to be hit and should not be hit.
If teens act like they want a fight with you, walk away. Tell them, “I’m responsible, I’m in control.” Most of the time, they are trying to get control of the situation and emotionally they are out of control. Don’t give in to them. Walk away.
Don’t be demeaning, don’t hurt them and don’t threaten them. Don’t tell them to “move out if they can’t follow the rules.” (Unless they are out of high school and able to care for themselves.)
Don’t engage. If you can’t deal with them, leave the room and call a friend or a crisis line.
Most of the time, the child will stop tantrumming when you leave them alone. Any damage they do to your home can be fixed. (I once had a kid take a hammer to my walls. It was fixable.)
It’s not easy to walk away, but it’s more important that YOU the parent show that:
- “I am in control of my emotions.”
- “You don’t control me.”
- “I will not hurt you emotionally or physically. I am a safe person for you.”
For more help on how to deal with your own child’s specific situation, call us at 801-855-7999 and we can guide you on strategies for your child. We won’t sugar coat things and give you advice that is worthless (“Just love them!”). Neurofeedback can make a real difference, but it often is a combination of neurofeedback, therapy, medications, parenting and love that has the best result. Good luck! Parenting is hard!
The mental health therapists at NeuroTherapy and Trauma Center of Utah offer a unique, brain-based program for healing. We combine counseling, neurofeedback and mindfulness to go beyond surface symptoms for deep healing. We help clients feel better, focus better, improve behavior and even sleep better. We are based in Clinton, Utah, near Ogden. Call us to learn more: 801-855-7999.