We had a tough time managing our eldest child's meltdowns in those first few years of parenting. Anything from not getting him into the car the way he wanted, to putting together his cereal in the “wrong” order, to wanting a bottle at 2am - if he didn’t feel like he had control of the situation, it very quickly escalated to a full-blown meltdown/tantrum.
Thankfully we found some tools to help us manage these better. I'm sharing them with you today, with the hope that it they will help you too!
Ten Tips & Tools for Tackling Tantrums:
1. Breathing Tools and Activities
We found breathing techniques extremely helpful - especially if they involved the distraction of a "fun toy". Getting our son to focus his attention away from the tantrum/meltdown was our biggest challenge - this seemed to really help.
This technique is all about getting the child to learn to steady their breathing in order to self-calm. The tools are great because they don't work unless the child is using a long deep drawn/steady breath. You can buy specific whistles and blowers online, but really it's anything that requires the child to steady their breathing in order to make the tool work. You can find some stuff in $2 shops or party supply stores (like little pipes that you blow steadily to try and keep a little ball floating on top). There's an actual website that sells a heap of really cool little respiratory tools that I’m happy to provide (just contact me and I’ll send the link through to you).
Using music at bedtime and during tantrums can help calm children down. Songs sung at rhythms of 50 to 70 beats per minute are said to be similar to the rhythm of the human heartbeat and have been found to slow body functions. We got a cd called “Cool Bananas” - it's full of kids songs sung at 50 to 70 beats per minute. We incorporated this music into our son’s bedtime routine and it seemed to help relax him. If he went to sleep calm, we found the frequency and severity of his nightlightly wakeups/meltdowns would usually decrease.
3. Games of Repetition
We used games that require repetitive actions (like putting money in a money box, or tokens into a slot, or posting letters) as distraction techniques, eg. if he was having a meltdown we'd try breaking the cycle by getting him to redirect his focus to a game of connect four. It didn't always work, but it was certainly helpful at times. It seemed that through regulating his actions, he would begin to regulate his breathing and in turn relax.
4. "First - Then" Concept
This is a concept is used to demonstrate to the child the positives of doing something they don’t necessary want to do. Typically the “first” thing is something they don’t want to do, and the “then” thing is something they enjoy doing or like. eg. “First” we go to the shop, “then” we go to the park. The then needs to be quite beneficial to the child when first starting to use the concept. In the beginning it might need to involve the use of treats/reward as the “then” activity, eg. First you pick up your toys, then you get a jellybean. Or first you put your plate on the bench, then you play outside. Initially the then reward or activity should come pretty quickly after the first action.
5. Visual Representation
This is all about communicating more visually than verbally. Visual cues such as pictures, objects and even sign language can be understood by children far earlier than they grasp verbal communication. Add to this the fact that in the midst of a tantrum, children can often shutdown and don’t even appear to hear what you’re saying anymore, let alone have the capacity to interpret and absorb it. Using visual cues to explain what you want them to do can certainly help, and we found if used regularly it can help prevent tantrums from occurring in the first place.
For example, having a whiteboard in the car and at home to be used to explain the First/Then activities can be helpful – draw a picture of a Car with your child in it to represent “First Car” and then a picture of a Slide with your child on it to represent “Then Park”. Another example is the use of Visual Charts for activities like going to bed. eg. picture for bath, picture for brushing teeth, picture for going to bed. You can take the child through each activity and as they achieve each step you allow them to post the little picture in a mailbox or something (this incorporates the repetitive game approach as well). In the early use of this concept, it pays to provide some sort of reward once the steps are completed – even if it is simply lots of cheers, hugs and high fives.
6. Feeling Heartbeat
This is similar to the breathing stuff. We would try to refocus our son’s attention to his heartbeat during meltdowns. We’d encourage him to put his hand on his heart and ask him to feel how fast it was going. We’d explain that it was too fast, often requiring us to get him to feel our heartbeat to compare. We’d then get him to try to “slow it down” by breathing deeply and laying down. Often we’d bring in a breathing tool at this point too.
7. Avoiding Over-stimulation
We try to avoid over-stimulation in the evenings (this one is easier said than done)! Limit stimulating activities prior to bed - like TV or toys with lots of music and lights.
8. Consistent Routines
We try to be flexible with things like naptimes and staying up a little late sometimes, but we work really hard to ensure we have consistent routines. For example, at bedtime we try no matter where we are to do things in a consistent order. Bath, then bottle, then a book, then bed. Consistency has proved very effective in maintaining a sense of calm (and perceived control on our child’s behalf).
9. Remaining Calm
This one is related to changes I’ve made to how I deal with the tantrums/meltdowns. For me it was all about letting go of the control and of the thought that they were being 'naughty'. It’s really hard not to get worked up/angry/frustrated/upset when you have a child in full meltdown mode. So it became about recognising when I was about to lose it, and removing myself from the situation. It sometimes means locking them in a room for a minute and walking outside, taking some deep breaths and getting myself centred again before going back in for round two. Remaining calm in these situations is certainly easier said than done, but it really is so important. Children, after all, are learning how to manage their emotions by mirroring how we manage our own.
10. Pick Your Battles
And finally, it was also about picking my battles. Learning to recognise and appreciate that you’re not going to win them all was a really important learning for me. Trusting yourself to make the right choices is important. It is super important to keep the hard-line on a lot of things in order to provide boundaries and to raise socially aware (and acceptable!) children. But there are also times when the most important thing needs to be ensuring they are ok, that the tantrum is broken and that they calm down. Attempting to deal with 'bad' behaviour during a tantrum is for the most part fruitless anyway. Calm them down first - deal with the behaviour once the meltdown is over. I find when I approach it this way the benefit is two-fold: I’m able to explain a lot more calmly and coherently what I didn’t like; and my kids are much more receptive to what I am saying.