I am all-too familiar with the scene of a weary mom trying to keep it together while her child is screaming because he couldn’t have what he wanted. I want to grab her hand and say, “I see you supermom, we can do hard things.” The truth is, we’ve all been there. Whether it’s Target, the park, or any outing for that matter it’s not uncommon for kids to have trouble managing their (very big) feelings. When these feelings become overwhelming to them, it doesn’t take much for the poor kiddos to become dysregulated (unable to regulate their emotions).
When children are emotionally dysregulated, we see tantrums and meltdowns. Although it’s easy to focus on the behavior that children are demonstrating during meltdowns, it is so important to consider how they got to that point. Was he disappointed? Caught off guard? Frustrated when his expectations weren’t met? For whatever reason, he was unable to cope.
Although meltdowns are difficult for parents, especially in public, it is important to consider how the child feels. He likely feels overwhelmed and out of control. The good news is that there are steps you can take to prevent these meltdowns and to help keep your children regulated.
#1 Let them know plans, schedules, and transitions in advance.
When children do not know plans or schedules, it makes them feel anxious. Anxiety is oftentimes a precursor for dysregulation. Additionally, children do not have a good concept of time.
So, when children go about their day not knowing what is in store, or when, it can make them feel unsettled and out-of-control. An easy solution is to let them know the plans and the schedule ahead of time. This can be as simple as saying, “Jimmy, today is going to be a fun day!
After breakfast, we are going to get ready and go to the library, then come back for lunch. After lunch, we will go to the park and then work on crafts until dinnertime.” Some parents create charts on construction paper. Others use a dry erase board. While these visual guides are ideal, you don’t need all the stickers and fancy crafts to prepare your child.
Verbally communicating the daily schedule and upcoming transitions (with 5-minute, 3-minute, and 1-minute warnings) can be just as effective for letting your child prepare and transition well.
Note: This is even more important for children with developmental disabilities.
#2 Clearly communicate your expectations.
Communicating the specific behaviors that you expect from your child will prevent misunderstandings and consequently tantrums. Your child will know exactly what is expected of him and can use those boundaries to guide his behavior and his own expectations.
This would look like saying something such as, “When we get to the store, I want you to stay in the cart and be my big shopping helper” or “Instead of getting a toy from the store, you can pick out one snack to bring home.”
As your child meets your stated expectations, you have the power to reinforce those behaviors and your child’s compliance by immediately and continually praising him or her: “Wow! I love how you are sitting in the cart like I asked! You sure are a big shopping helper.”
More on that next.
#3 Provide praise and attention.
One thing we can always count on is that children love attention and praise! They will get it any way they know how. If we provide that attention by praising positive behaviors or met expectations, those behaviors will be reinforced.
This can be done verbally, through labeled praise: “Jimmy, you are doing such a good job waiting your turn.” It can also be done with rewards and incentives, such as rewarding your child with a fun snack or activity if she leaves the park when you ask.
Incentives work best if they are collaboratively decided ahead of time by the child and parent. Or else, again, confusing expectations. If you reward and praise your child for meeting your expectations, they will undoubtedly be more likely to do so in the future.
More importantly, though, praise and attention make your child feel attached to you.
When attachment is established and secure, children demonstrate increased compliance and emotional stability.
#4 Provide options.
Parenting styles have evolved quite significantly over the past few decades. In my clinical work, some parents initially struggle with the idea of providing options for their children, rather than authoritatively telling them the rules.
Once parents see, however, the benefits of providing options they quickly become believers.
This would look something like this: “Jimmy, would you like to go to sleep now or in 5 minutes?” or “Sally, would you like to sit in the front of the shopping cart or in the back of the shopping cart?”
This technique allows children to think that they are making the choice,which increases compliance, rather than being forced to do something which increases tantrums
Here’s a great resource created by Kid Matters to help parents give their children options.
#5 Frame statements in the positive.
In fact, parents and children go back-and-forth an average of 10 times when engaged in a power struggle. Although it is necessary to say “No,” “Don’t,” “Can’t,” and “Stop” to our children at times, oftentimes, we can replace those statements with positive ones.
For example, “Don’t put your shoes on the table” can be replaced with “Put your shoes on the floor.” Instead of saying, “You can’t play with that,” one can say, “You can play with this toy over here.” Parents have countless opportunities to frame statements positively.
Parents have countless opportunities to frame statements positively. And although it takes intentionality and effort, framing statements positively reduces the power struggle and consequently reduces tantrums.
Children experience big feelings. But that doesn’t mean parents can’t enjoy Magnolia’s Hearth & Hand line at Target. Parents can help their children manage their feelings, so that outings aren’t being dreaded or avoided.
In addition to making sure that they are not in the toy aisle while hungry at naptime, parents can help their children maintain emotional regulation and prevent tantrums. Even so, tantrums are inevitable. Stay tuned for my next blog post which explores effective ways to manage tantrums when they occur, as well as some neuroscience behind emotional dysregulation in children.
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