3 tips to decrease meltdowns and tantrums
As we all know, meltdowns and tantrums have a way of ruling the roost when they are in full swing. Whether your goal is to stop behavior before it occurs or have a quicker resolution, the key is finding the source. To do this, you have to do some investigating about why your child’s behavior is occurring.
At first glance, you may think the answer is obvious. For instance you may think it was because they didn’t get their way. Or you may have no idea because it feels like it came out of nowhere. But the key to solving behavior issues is to look a little deeper into your child’s reactions. All behavior is communication. When your child has a meltdown or tantrum they are trying to communicate with you.
So what is your child trying to communicate?
Where Behaviors Come From
Fear or Anxiety
A lot of challenging behaviors come out of fear or anxiety. From refusing to go to bed or school, to opposing everything you say, fear is often at the core of these very frustrating behaviors. Usually fear causes children to try to control their environment as a way to try to cope. This can show up as being rigid about what they will or won’t do, being clingy, avoiding certain places or people or becoming bossy and demanding. It can also show up as aggressive behavior because the child’s brain is trying to fight against their fear.
For a child who has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or sensory sensitivities, the world can feel like a minefield. Children can become overwhelmed when tasked with something their bodies are uncomfortable with. As a result, many kids with sensory sensitivities use avoidance to manage these sensitivities. They may also have big reactions to certain stimulus or it may seem like they completely tune the world out.
Stress and Overwhelm
Kids are not immune to stress, trauma or overwhelm. In fact, stress often affects kids more because their ability to regulate their emotions, self-soothe, cope and have perspective are still developing. When a child’s stress tolerance is breached the limited skills they do have go right out the window. This leaves kids reacting from their lower brain, which is charge of the stress response. When kids are stressed or overwhelmed it can show up as aggression, disinterest or avoidance.
Trauma does not need to be a big, scary event. Trauma can be a lot of little events that add up over time or a single event. The nature of the event and whether there is a caring adult to help after the event, will determine whether a child experiences trauma.
If your child has a history of trauma, their amygdala can be enlarged because it is working overtime. An enlarged amygdala results in hypervigilence and more stress responses. Like stress, trauma limits a child’s ability to control their actions when triggered. Trauma can be triggered from everyday events or sensory stimulus, like smells. Trauma behaviors are usually much more extreme in their aggression. In addition, trauma tantrums can last for a very long time.
Learning Disability or Neurodiversity Struggles
Children with learning disabilities and neurodiversity struggle because their brain can’t do what is being asked of them. This can be extremely frustrating for the parent and child. While it often appears as being lazy or defiant, the child is actually neither of these things. Executive functioning abilities, which includes focus and attention, impulse control and predicting consequences, can be delayed or harder to master in children that have learning disabilities and neurodiversity. Research has shown that these children have brains that are wired in a different way. Research also indicates these children tend to experience anxiety and depression at a higher rate. Mental health struggles have a direct link to behavior challenges.
Connection or Relationship Troubles
We are social creatures by nature. When a child is not connecting to the important people in their lives, it can set off behavior challenges. A child who is lacking connection may become less trusting of others for fear of further rejection. Or they may become provoking and aggressive to demand others pay attention to them.
Lack of connection can have serious effects on a child’s attachment with caregivers and can lead to mental health issues that last into adulthood. If your child is struggling with behaviors, start by looking at your relationship. How much undivided connection time you are spending with them a day? If your child lacks alone time with you to talk or bond, make this a priority. Spending time with your child would be a good first step to reducing unwanted behaviors.
For teenagers, their main source for connection are their friends. Rejection by peers can lead to depression or significant behavior issues. If things seem fine in your relationship, check in to see how their friend relationships are going. Don’t push too hard, but let them know you are open for talking any time.
Regardless of which category you think your child falls into, the solutions remain the same. So it is okay if your child falls into more than one category; that is not uncommon. It just might mean that it will take longer for your child to work through learning emotional regulation and impulse control because they have a few more hurdles in their way.
1. Spend at least 5 minutes a day connecting with your child
This time should be planned into your day the same way an important meeting would be. This time is spent doing whatever your child would like to do or talk about. Make sure to keep the time uninterrupted. If you need to interrupt your time to deal with something urgent, let your child know and set a time to circle back later.
2. Reflect back to your child so they know you understand their struggles
Whether your child is struggling with fear, stress, neurodiversity or sensory sensitivities, acknowledging why something is hard can be a game changer. If you want to get ahead of behaviors, reflect their feelings back to them as they are beginning to escalate. After reflecting back, like ‘that made you mad, you did not like that at all’, offer to do a coping technique with them. Coping techniques such as slow breathing and hugs are good for any age. If your child escalated too fast you can still reflect during their tantrum to make it shorter. Keep the words small and your voice calm. Listening is the key.
3. Provide “just right” accommodations to decrease meltdowns and tantrums
While we do not want to accommodate too much, we do want to make sure we are supportive. This means we provide just enough support to stretch your child into building their coping and self-regulation skills. For example, you may help them get started with deep breathing and ask for them to continue without you. Or you begin a hard task together and slowly remove yourself over time.
For anxiety and fear, while we do not want to create too much stress, the ultimate goal will be to show the child that they can be uncomfortable and still be okay. This is how we build up their confidence and resilience and lessen behavior challenges. Always start with little steps towards your goal since going too fast can make your child resist. If you want to learn more about how to do this with your child, check out our 3 Ways to Help Your Child with Anxiety.
For sensory sensitivities, accommodations are usually necessary. Like anxiety, the goal is to help them learn to build up tolerance so they can function better in their lives. Because sensory sensitivities can be complex and span all 8 senses, it can be very helpful to work with an occupational therapist to make progress.
All behavior is communication. If you listen to what your child's behavior is trying to communicate you can get to the root cause. Once you know their motive, you can parent from a better, more effective place. Knowing why our kids act the way they do allows us to do the things that will help minimize their behaviors. It also allows us to view our children from a different light and meet them with compassion and patience. And when we do that, challenging behaviors lessen dramatically.