Managing emotional meltdowns (aka temper tantrums for younger children) has been the most frequently requested topic in my 20 years providing family therapy and workshops for parents and childhood professionals. Similarly, most pediatricians cover the topic of temper tantrums at the 2-year wellness check-ups. To aid these conversations, the American Academy of Pediatrics created the parent handout “Temper Tantrums” (Plain Language Pediatrics, 2008).
Why are children’s emotional meltdowns so common? Temper tantrums are common around 2-4 years of age because children reach the cognitive development to have specific preferences, yet they do not have the emotional development to accept or wait when their preferences are not fulfilled. “Tantruming” (crying, screaming, flailing around) is the physical and verbal expression of intense frustration, without the ability to calm down at the moment. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to seek professional help if temper tantrums get worse after age 4, the child hurts him/herself during tantrums, or has other behavior problems.
Most children develop self-regulation significantly between 2 and 5 years of age, enough to accept and wait when their preferences are not fulfilled. However, some children have a slower pace of developing self-regulation, and continue experiencing “emotional meltdowns.” The physical and verbal expression of intense frustration tends too be more advanced for school-age, including aggressive and depressive statements and behaviors towards self and others.
In my experience, some of the factors that contribute to more frequent and intense emotional meltdowns or tantrums are:
- The child’s persistent and intense temperament (read more about temperament here).
- The adults giving in to the child’s demands in order to end or lessen the tantrum/meltdown.
- The adults reprimanding or punishing the child for the tantrum/meltdown, which fuels the frustration.
- Cultural values that support tantrums/meltdowns as “normal” in children of school age.
I propose reframing the occurrence of tantrums/meltdowns at any age as opportunities to cultivate self-regulation and enhance the adult-child relationship. All parents and professionals must have the skills to respond to children’s tantrums/meltdowns in a way that…
- Expresses that the child’s feelings are understandable and important.
- Coaches the child to calm down before trying to rationalize, by role-modeling calm-down exercises.
- Gives the child enough time for the emotional part of his brain to cool down (read more about how self-regulation occurs in the brain here).
- Empowers the child to choose from alternative options, once he/she can engage in a rational conversation, after the emotional part of the brain has cooled down.
- Reinforces the habit of calming down with praise/love.
- Reminds the child to seek the adults for emotional support.
I demonstrate these steps in the video below.