Eight year old David is playing a board game with his sister. Everything is going along well until the girl wins. David gets mad and a meltdown ensues. In another common scenario, five year old Sarah is watching a cartoon on her mother’s iPad. Mom tells Sarah that it’s time to leave and she shuts off the iPad. Sarah throws herself on the floor and begins screaming.
Before I go further with this problem, please take note that this or any of my other articles are not substitutes for family therapy. They contain basic parenting advice for common situations. If your child is demonstrating serious challenging behaviors it is always a good idea to seek out the advice of a behavior health professional. Start with your child’s pediatrician to determine appropriate next steps.
From toddler to school age, the kind of behavior I described in the first paragraph can drive parents nuts. Their first response is often scolding, sympathy, or even lecturing. I’ve seen many parents go right to the child and begin rationalizing with them that their response to the loss or the end of an activity was unnecessary and over the top. The parents mean well as they try to reason with the upset child that it’s “no big deal,” or that there will be a next time.
But trying to change a child’s perspective in the heat of the moment while they are experiencing intense emotion is usually a waste of time. What’s most important in that moment is (1.) for you to remain calm and quiet, (2.) sooth or comfort the child if you can, and (3.) keep them safe from harm caused by the physical aspect of their outburst. The better time to reason with a child is (4.) after the emotion has subsided and they can actually hear you and think clearly.
The actual causes of this kind of behavior could be many. From personality trait, temperament, a lack of parental boundaries, or even physiological influences such as hunger and fatigue. It could also be just a phase the child is going through at the moment. The most important thing you can do as a parent is (5.) to learn the patterns of when this sort of behavior occurs. Take note of what the activity was, the time of day, and any events just prior to the explosive-like behavior. Keeping a (6.) journal will help if you decide to seek help from a therapist or counselor.
Use this information to (7.) plan your child’s activities to minimize the outbursts. Stay one step ahead of them by (8.) setting up clear boundaries for your child with visual limitations on play. (9.) Invite your child to help you determine how long an activity will occur and plan out transitions between activities by including your child in the planning stages. Visual timers and schedules work well because your child can see who much time is left before transition occurs, or they can see the activities that will be taking place.
Finally, (10.) provide encouragement when your child does not get angry at an outcome. Bring their attention to how well they transitioned and ask them open-ended questions that lead them to their own conclusion about how things turned out.