12 Peaceful Parenting Tips to Tame Tantrums and End Meltdowns With Your Spirited Child
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My oldest has always been a bit “extra”. (And by “a bit,” I mean “A LOT”). She is just wired differently, and it was obvious from when she was a baby. She full-on crawled at four months. She was walking at ten months. She climbed everything in reach since…well, the beginning. She just never stopped moving.
As she grew into a toddler, the busy-ness only increased, and so did her persistence. Where other toddlers could be distracted by a change in scenery or a different toy, mine could continue tantruming for an hour (or more) if she didn’t get what she wanted.
I remember once, I took my nearly-three-year-old and my newborn out for pancakes (by myself). Breakfast went surprisingly well, and I took us all to the bathroom before we headed to the car. My oldest refused to wash her hands afterwards, and after cajoling and counting down and “the look” all failed, I washed her hands for her.
She, of course, completely lost it and I ended up carrying a screaming, flailing toddler (and a newborn) back through the restaurant to the parking lot, where a line of people waiting for a table inside the now-packed restaurant watched as I tried — and failed — to buckle the toddler into her carseat. Forty-five minutes later, she was still screaming and kicking. She was so strong at this point that I couldn’t physically force her into the seat. And I couldn’t put her down to just scream it out — if I let her go, she’d start running back through the parking lot to the restaurant so she could “try again” and wash her hands herself (which I was not willing to do, particularly given that I had the baby). If I tried to put her down inside the car, she’d climb over the seats before I could grab her, unlock and open the car door, and run off. So I stood there, for forty-five minutes, while hordes of brunch-goers watched me grip a flailing child, the newborn now screaming in her carseat.
This scene has repeated itself more times than I’d like to admit.
We’ve tried time outs, sticker charts, counting to “three,” removing privileges, and “ignoring the negative behavior.” Nothing worked. We never spanked (although in my lowest moments I wanted to), mainly because I didn’t know how I could reasonably expect my child not to hit others if I was going to use hitting to make a point. Regardless of what we tried, nothing worked. I was wrung out and emotionally exhausted.
After we moved to Guatemala, these tantrums reached an all-time high. We were having epic meltdowns two or three times a day, involving kicking and screaming and crying but also hitting and spitting and attempting to run away. Like, unlock-the-front-door-and-run-out-of-the-house away. Safety was becoming a very real issue.
The lowest point for me was when I attempted to put her in time out after one of these epic meltdowns — this time, over refusing to wash her hands after coming home from preschool. As I carried her to her room, she spit in my face. Enraged, I put her in her room and tried to close the door. She came out. I put her back. Thirty minutes later, we had made no progress with this little tête-a-tête. I found myself outside her room, holding the door closed while she screamed and beat at the door. After ten minutes of this, I couldn’t do it anymore.
I couldn’t handle these meltdowns for one more minute.
My life had become about preventing, managing, and recovering from these tantrums. And since they were occurring at least twice a day (often more), and lasted for at least an hour each time, they were taking over our lives. They were preventing me from caring for my other baby. We all walked around on eggshells, worried about when the next meltdown would strike.
Enough was enough. Over the next few months, I spoke with play therapists and positive parenting experts. I took a parenting course. I read heaps of books and an endless stream of articles.
Some things worked. Some didn’t.
But a year later, things are markedly better. We still have bad days, and meltdowns do still occur on occasion. But they’re shorter, much easier to manage, and I’m not afraid of my own kid any longer. Sure, she’s older now and more settled in our new country. But the techniques below are what helped turn the tides for us.
Here’s how we got our spirited child’s meltdowns under control.
1. Who’s in charge here, anyway?
I remember being frustrated as a teenager when an arbitrary rule was set that obviously didn’t make sense. When I became a parent, I swore I’d never set rules around things I didn’t really care about, which meant she sometimes wore two different shoes or slept with 1,346 stuffed animals. I thought I was being reasonable.
After a one-on-one session with an expert from Hand-in-Hand parenting, I learned that my go-with-the-flow attitude was causing a lot of stress for my daughter, especially after the arrival of her baby sister and the move overseas.
Here’s an example. We were having a meltdown every single day after school over washing her hands. Our routine is we come home from school, take off our shoes, and wash our hands before we do anything else.
We’d start out strong, but then as I’d lift her up to the kitchen sink, she’d ask to use the bathroom sink. I don’t care what sink she uses, so we’d go to the bathroom. But now she’d want the soap from the kitchen sink. Sensing an imminent meltdown, I’d desperately provide the requested soap, except now she’d want to go to our bathroom. We’d bounce around for half an hour, as I’d try to avoid a meltdown, (because when meltdowns are this bad, you get desperate to head them off). Eventually, I’d reach a limit, depending on my mood or my patience level that day, and I’d just have to force the issue, feeling terrible about enforcing such an “arbitrary” limit (and terrible that my kid was pushing me around). Then we’d have thirty minutes of kicking and screaming after I washed her hands for her, where she’d want to run back and “try again,” doing it herself.
The expert I talked to pointed out that with all the recent changes, my daughter was likely wondering who the heck was in charge these days. By providing a limitless buffet of options, my daughter was adrift, wondering what to choose. She needed someone to say, “this is the soap we use, this is the sink we use,” even if I didn’t really care about those specific options. And if we were having a meltdown anyway, why not hold the limit sooner, so that at least we’d get it over with and I wouldn’t compound the awful-ness of the meltdown with feeling like a chump on top of everything else.
We agreed that I’d give her two chances to make a choice, and after that, I’d hold the limit. And we had meltdowns for a few days. But after she realized I was serious, the meltdowns lessened and she made her choices more quickly and without as much fuss. I realized that my limit wasn’t actually about the soap or the sink (or the shoes or the hair ribbon or whatever was causing the delay), it was about the time and inconvenience all these requests and changes were causing for the rest of the family. I could feel good about holding that limit, since consideration is a value that’s important to me. I had to reframe the limit in my mind from “which sink” to “make a choice within reason out of consideration for others.”
2. Exchange “time-outs” for “time-ins”
Time-outs were a huge failure for us. Occasionally she’d stay in time-out, but more often, she’d immediately run out of wherever the designated time-out spot was. Then, we’d have a battle not over whatever behavior had led to the time-out, but the time-out itself. It was obvious that she was not learning any lessons, at least not the ones I wanted her to learn.
It wasn’t good. No one was learning anything valuable, except that I wanted to avoid time-out as much as possible (which made me dance around, trying to avoid setting a limit that I’d have to enforce later).
After a lot of reading about Positive Parenting, I switched to time-ins. You guys, these are a game changer. Seriously, if you take nothing away from this article but this, I know you’ll see improvements.
The next time she did something that required serious correction, I’d take her out of the situation and hold her in my arms in a quiet place. Yes, even if she’d done something super naughty, like hitting another child or throwing food all over the kitchen or running away from me in a parking lot. Even if I wanted to scream in frustration. Even if she was already mid-meltdown — I’d hold her. It’s hard to be loving in these moments, but no one ever said this parenting gig was easy.
Sometimes she’d flail for a minute or two. But usually, she’d collapse in my arms after a few seconds and just cry — no kicking, no screaming, no spitting. Then she’d sniff, we’d discuss what had happened and make a plan for how to do better, and on we went with our day.
No more forty-five-minute battles of will. No more spitting or slapping or kicking. By switching out time-outs for time-ins, I was saving hours a day and countless emotional reserves. And you know what? We were getting results in terms of the original behavior — by showing empathy and support, we were resolving the behavior problems more quickly and more calmly.
3. Find Your Mantra
Laura Markham talks about this a lot, as does Avital from The Parenting Junkie. Basically, I re-framed bad behavior by reminding myself that my kid wasn’t acting poorly on purpose — bad behavior was usually a sign that she was struggling with something.
Kids, especially little kids, don’t misbehave at you. Ignore your mother-in-law, forget what the elderly neighbor says — bad behavior isn’t manipulation. It’s a cry for help. As Laura Markham says, “They’re not giving you a hard time. They’re having a hard time.”
Bad behavior isn’t manipulation. It’s a cry for help.
When my child was being particularly difficult, I’d repeat to myself “Choose love.” This came to represent a whole host of ideas: that this my child that I love, and I have an opportunity to show love even when they’re struggling. That the undesirable behavior probably meant that my child was struggling with something and needed my help. That I am the adult in this situation.
Not only did this help me stay calm during trying times, it usually led to a quicker resolution of the problem.
For example, I remember an afternoon around the holidays where we had a house full of family. Our day was packed with holiday festivities — baking cookies, visiting Santa, holiday crafts, lots of visitors. We got to the point where she was just being really difficult — throwing art supplies, stealing toys from other kids, just generally being defiant.
Before I learned these techniques, I might have thrown her in a time-out and spent the next hour fighting her to stay in her room while my family watched.
Now, I saw her bad behavior as a signal that she needed help. Based on the situation, I guessed she was feeling overwhelmed with all the activity and new people, and needed a break. As a spirited kid, she is just generally more sensitive to hustle and bustle, and she needs regular opportunities to decompress.
So I took her into my bedroom, we read books for half an hour, we snuggled, and we hung out. When we returned to the family and tried to resume baking cookies, she started to ramp back up. So I cut out the structured activities for the rest of the afternoon, allowed her to play and do her thing, and we actually had a pleasant, meltdown-free afternoon.
Which leads me to the next recommendation:
I was on the phone with my girlfriend, complaining about how hard it was to take my daughter anywhere. How she refused to sit and pay attention during story time at the library. How she ran around and stole instruments from the other kids during music class. How she refused to participate in the activities at the toddler art class.
My friend cut me off and asked — what does she do when you just spend a day at home?
I stopped dead.
“We don’t have a single day where we just hang out at home. We have an activity every day.”
I had scheduled activities every day because it’s hard to be home all day with a tiny dictator. It’s boring. And these were learning opportunities.
But were they worth the effort? Was anyone actually learning anything? Were these activities worth the stress of whispering threats to my three-year-old in the library? Were they worth the money, when we often left after just half a music class after she left another kid wailing when she stole their drum or tambourine?
Yea, probably not.
I cut out all the paid activities and stuck with the basics: weekly playgroup, daily free play in the park, and visits to the children’s playroom at the library (skipping the structured story time).
If we were having a good day, we might go visit the aquarium or the children’s museum, but these happened more rarely, maybe once a month.
Removing the structured activities resolved so much stress. We no longer fought over getting out the door by a certain time. No more fights over appropriate clothing for music class (no swimsuits in February, sorry!). No more fights to pay attention to the teacher or to stop barrel-rolling out the door of the library (true story).
We still went out most days, but we stuck with activities where she could run and play without constantly hearing “no” and “stop”. We created an environment where I could say “yes” more. Where she could be successful.
Let’s be honest, mommy&me music class is not necessary at this age. We read plenty of books at home, and we don’t need library story time. We did daily art projects at home as part of homeschooling, and we didn’t need the pricey toddler art class. We were wasting money and valuable emotional reserves on activities that did not matter.
Sure, I had moments of frustration that other kids could handle these classes. Other kids had no problem following directions and sitting still on the mat during story time. My kid, at ages two and three and four, just wasn’t there yet. And we were both going crazy, trying to make these activities work.
But she was great at climbing and running and make-believe. So we spent our hours in the park, where we flew kites and launched model rockets and played freeze tag. These days, we hunt for dinosaurs and go birdwatching with our binoculars and climb trees.
I think we’ve made a good trade.
5. Teach deep breathing
Whenever my daughter would start to scream for something she wanted, or would get worked up over something and make a heated demand, absolutely nothing would happen until she took a few deep breaths and asked again calmly.
It took a looooong time to teach this. I had to model constantly for the first few months.
It would go something like this:
E: “I DON’T WANT TO RIDE IN THE STROLLER I WANT TO WALK!!!”
Me: Say it again, calmly.
E: (screams) I DON’T WANT TO RIDE PLEEEEEEEASE!!!!!!!!!!
Me: (models deep breaths) Take a deep breath. Deep breath.
E: starts gulping and hiccuping.
(thirty seconds of this, give or take)
Me: Try again.
E: Can I walk, please?
Now, I don’t even need to prompt her. If she starts screaming or demanding, I just say “try again” and she’ll begin to take deep breaths and then asks in a calm voice.
I knew we had really made headway when I saw her teaching this to one of her friends. A little boy came over for a playdate, and he fell and scraped his knee while they were riding scooters in our driveway. It was a tiny scrape, but he was crying quite loudly.
My daughter walked up, held his hand, and said in the quietest, sweetest voice: “Don’t worry, it will be okay. Take a deep breath. There, isn’t that better?”
The little boy followed her instructions, calmed right down, and I was able to wash the scrape and put on a band-aid without issue.
6. Find support for yourself
My good friend Marjie is a social worker (beyond just being an all-around #momboss), and she is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to helping kids cope with big emotions. I cannot even to begin to state how valuable it was to have another parent validate what I was going through, to remind me that I am a good mom. There was no judgment, just a kind, listening ear.
When you’re parenting a spirited child, the judgment can get intense. It can be hard to go anywhere or do anything fun (see number #4), out of fear of what other parents might think. It’s isolating. Having just one or two people who get it, who like your kid and see all the wonderful parts about them, who know that their emotional struggles don’t define them — that is worth its weight in gold (Or coffee. Or wine. Pick your poison.).
Find your tribe. Don’t spend time with other parents or situations that make you feel bad about yourself. Keep trying new things, new groups, new situations, until you find your people. It’s worth it.
7. Talk About Emotions
My good friend Marjie recommended a number of great resources, and I have used them with incredible success, again and again.
Her first recommendation included various books about emotion. Our favorite is “The Color Monster” by Anna Llenas. This lovely book provides a visual representation of emotions like anger, fear, sadness, and happiness. We started reading this in moments of calm, and it gave us the chance to reflect back on what makes her feel angry or sad or scared, and what she can do to feel better.
We started pulling this book out during some of our time-ins. She’d pause on the page with the various emotions, and pull the tabs for what she was feeling in the moment. It gave us a concrete way to verbalize her big feelings and to discuss how to manage them.
Even today, she still asks for this book at times. She loves talking right at the monster, and I’ve even caught her teaching the monster her deep breathing technique. Just the other night, she asked to read this book and then subsequently spent five minutes telling the monster all about the bad day she had at school. I had no idea anything was up at all, but the book gave us a familiar mechanism for processing her feelings.
We also practice our “feeling faces.” This is simple and can be done at the dinner table, in the bathtub, or whenever you have a few quiet moments. Practice making mad faces, sad faces, excited faces, scared faces, and then challenge each other to guess the feeling based on the face. This helps kids name their emotions and to begin to pay attention to others.
Whenever we see another child who is upset, I ask my daughter, “What do you think happened? Why are they crying? What can we do to help?” I love seeing her come up with ideas to help her friends, and it strengthens her emotional intelligence while we’re at it. You can also play this game while reading books — point to the pictures and ask, “Why is bear angry?” or “Why did the boy start crying?” This also builds literacy, so it’s a win-win all around.
8. Play therapy
Similarly, unstructured play can give room for kids to process big emotions. Laura Markham recommends daily special time with each child in your home, where they get a set amount of time (determined by the parent) to play whatever they want. I shoot for fifteen minutes a day, and I try to do it during times when I know she’s primed to be on edge, like right after a day at school or right before dinner when we’ve been out playing in the park for a few hours.
Not only does this help the child feel more connected with you, the caregiver, but it also provides an opportunity to release worries and fears in an indirect, safe way.
One day, I was doing special time with my daughter, and she set up a scenario where we were in an airplane. Quickly, she shifted the game to where we flew the airplane repeatedly from Boston (where we had just moved from) to Guatemala (where we now live). We “flew” back and forth half a dozen times, and she kept expanding the game — packing her suitcase with her favorite toys, saying goodbye to her grandparents, bringing her cat on the plane. It had been six months since the move, but she remembered every detail, including our layover and the snacks she ate on the plane. We fly fairly frequently for vacations and short trips, but this particular flight obviously stood out.
After we had played airplane for awhile, she stopped and looked down sadly. She said, “Mom, I really miss my house in Boston. I really miss Nana and Pop-Pop.”
There was no lead-in, no warning that this was on her mind. She was three at the time, and I thought we had moved past this particular transition.
Play gave us the opportunity to identify and then respond to something that was clearly upsetting for her.
If you suspect that something is on your child’s mind, you can encourage a play scenario where they can work this out. In this example, I might provide some big boxes and markers that we can turn into airplanes. I might leave out a backpack and tell her that we can pretend to pack up our suitcases. I could strew out a toy airplane and some figurines. No need to force it, just create the opportunity and see where it goes.
I use this technique all the time. For awhile, we were really struggling over getting dressed and out the door for her Montessori preschool. She’d run and hide behind the couch, and I’d find myself screaming at her to just get moving already.
After this had gone on far too long, I pulled out some toys one night while she was in the bath. I said, “Let’s pretend I’m the kid and you’re the mom.” Always excited for a game, she quickly agreed. As the kid, I pretended it was time for school, and I did all the things that drive me nuts in the morning — yelling, running away, shouting “no!”, refusing to get dressed. I had my doll do every terrible, frustrating thing I could think of.
My daughter thought it was hilarious. As the “mom,” she calmly and kindly kept redirecting the “kid” doll to follow directions. She said verbatim all the things I say to her in the morning. And I slowly transitioned the “kid” to start following directions and to apologize.
We played this game every night for a few weeks. And yes, the mornings got easier and easier.
9. Get playful
If I see a potential meltdown coming, sometimes (keyword: sometimes) they can be averted by getting silly.
Let’s say she starts whining and her voice starts rising.
Uh oh, meltdown is coming.
I scoop her up and start covering her in kisses or give her a huge bear hug, saying, “Whoops! Looks like you’re out of hugs!” If I catch things early enough, she might start laughing and then I can respond to her original request in a calmer manner.
Or, I can “give in” to her request in a super silly way. If she’s asking for a spoon in a demanding tone, I might give her a mixing spoon, then a serving spoon, then a tiny baby spoon, before finally giving her a regular spoon after she says “please.”
Another powerful tip from Laura Markham regards roughhousing. If things are getting heated, sometimes a round of wrestling or “flying” her on my legs or jumping on the trampoline helps re-set things.
My fail-safe are books. If we haven’t hit full-on meltdown, but we’ve had a lot of whining and crying and mini-tantrums, we can usually get back on track if we spend some quiet time on the couch with a stack of books and some sort of treat.
10. Catch them when they’re being good
There are days when I feel like I’m just saying “No! Stop!” on repeat all dang day. We just move from one frustrating moment to another, and we both end up edgy.
I make a point to find something good that I can highlight before things get worse.
Even if they’re driving you nuts, find something good to focus on — like “Wow, you did a great job remembering to take your shoes off after we got home from the park. I don’t even have to remind you anymore. What a big kid you are now. Great work!” This is sometimes enough to get your child back on track, and it often helps me reset as well by focusing on the positive.
11. Don’t assume the worst.
For a long while, if my kid came up to me in the store with a toy or piece of candy, I wouldn’t even wait for them to open their mouth. I’d instantly bark out, “Put it back! We’re not buying that!” It’s no surprise that these moments rarely ended well.
Now, I approach these situations differently. If she comes up holding a toy, I might say “Wow, that is the coolest slinkie I’ve ever seen!”
We’re starting out on a positive note, so when she inevitably asks if she can have it, it’s easier to say, “Oh man, you really want that slinkie. It is awesome. But it’s not in the plan for today. Can you find where it goes on the shelf?”
The first few times I tried this technique, I felt like a total parenting ninja when she’d happily place the item back, with nary a complaint. Sure, it takes more time up front, but you save so much time by preventing the potential meltdown later.
12. Know Your Child’s Triggers
If you have a spirited child, or a child who has some sort of special need, like autism or sensory processing disorder, they are likely more sensitive to certain environments.
I know my kid gets overwhelmed in crowded, loud, busy places. She loves these kinds of parties and situations, but they totally wear her out. I watch her closely at birthday parties, and when she hits her limit (evidenced by acting out, becoming aggressive, or whining), we leave. She’s not being mean on purpose, she is just losing her ability to cope appropriately.
No one wins a prize by sticking it out at playgroup until the very last minute. Save yourself the heartache, and leave when they (and you) are ready.
With my younger baby (who is now 15 months), I know her trigger is hunger. She’s also a super-active kid (although more mellow emotionally), but she gets hangry. If we’re going around and around with clinginess and crying, I give her a snack with protein — even if we’re having dinner in twenty minutes. Often, this just means giving her a spoonful of peanut butter or a string cheese — it doesn’t have to be complicated. I know I get tense when I’m hungry, so it’s no surprise that a busy, growing kid starts acting out when their blood sugar is low.
Your kid might have a totally different trigger — my nephew, who was obviously gifted from a young age, really hated messy play for the longest time. Stickers sent him over the edge. That was his thing. For your kid, it might be tags in their clothing or other kids getting in their personal space.
This doesn’t mean you have to avoid the trigger entirely — kids should learn how to manage crowded spaces or to wait until dinner or *gasp* how to touch a sticker (I love you, sweet nephew!). But acknowledging the trigger allows you to be sensitive and understanding, and makes it easier to cry “uncle” when everyone has had enough.
If you’re not sure what your child’s triggers could be, think about the basics: are they getting enough sleep? (Kids between ages 3-5 need 10-13 hours a day!) Are they hungry? Do they need some quiet downtime? Are they uncomfortable physically? You can head off many a meltdown by addressing the basics first.
How to recover from a meltdown
Sometimes the meltdown can’t be avoided. You’ve been playful, you’ve empathized, you’ve tried a time-in, and yet here you are — with a flailing child on the floor (or sidewalk, or driveway, or wherever).
Sometimes kids have too many big emotions inside, and they just need to discharge that energy through a tantrum. A lot of old school parenting advice recommends that you “ignore the negative behavior”. But if you look at a tantrum as a cry for help, not a manipulation tool, then ignoring the tantrum doesn’t make a lot of a sense.
We tried ignoring tantrums, and they just lasted longer and were more intense than if I responded with love and empathy.
If you’re somewhere that you don’t feel like you can respond well (like a crowded playground or grocery store), just pick that kid up and move — take them to your car, to a bathroom, to a back aisle of the supermarket. Moving to a different area, particularly a quieter area with more limited sensory input, can go a long way by itself. If you have other children with you, pop out that cell phone to keep them distracted or ply them with a juice box — this is all about survival for the moment.
If the child permits you, hold them and hug them and rock them. Say something simple, like “I’m here” or “It’s okay to be sad/mad/scared.” If they don’t allow you to touch them, just stay close by and step in when they’ve discharged some of that emotion.
After they’ve calmed down a bit, hold them or sit near them and provide warm touch, like a back rub or a hug. Reinforce the emotion but hold your limit. This might sound like “You were so mad when I wouldn’t let you get ice cream! You want that ice cream so much! You are so mad!” They might correct you — “No mom, I just wanted to show you that they had my favorite flavor!”
Give a brief recap of what happened, then a short — short!! — redirection about what they can do now. So, you might say “You were so mad that I wouldn’t let you ride your bike in the street! You hate riding on the bumpy sidewalk! Next time, tell me when you want to ride in the street and we’ll go to the cul-de-sac so we can ride where it’s safe. Let’s practice asking.” If it seems right, do a role-play where they can try out the skill you recommend. If they’re too worked up, save it for later. Try a play therapy technique mentioned in #9 and rehearse it when everyone has had a chance to calm down.
Depending on the circumstance, offer to allow the child to try again. If you had to enforce hair washing or teeth brushing or toy clean-up, and they lost it, give them a chance for a do-over where they can show you that they can follow directions. It doesn’t always work, and you don’t want to allow endless chances (see #1), but it can help give some independence and autonomy.
Last, provide some space for reconnection. For those really intense meltdowns, spend some time together afterward in a connecting activity. For us, that usually means reading a few books together snuggled up on the couch, maybe with a special treat (gummy bears for the win). Maybe they get a special bubble bath in the middle of the day. Or you could sit quietly and color together for 15 minutes. Find a chance to reconnect and reset before moving on, and you’ll be less likely to face another meltdown later in the day.
If you can, avoid TV right after a meltdown. I think TV or iPads or YouTube videos lead kids to numb out, instead of sitting with and processing the emotion. Additionally, the bright lights and high activity in most kids’ shows are hardly soothing. If possible, transition to quiet play, or a book on tape, or a walk out in the sunshine. Give both your child and yourself the opportunity to process and calm down after the worst is over.
Finally, don’t dwell on it. Those intense emotions are completely overwhelming for littles and they’re rarely in control when in the midst of a meltdown. Work through it, then move on — you don’t need to recount the play-by-play to Dad over dinner or to Grandma on the phone, at least not in front of your child. Definitely find space to vent for yourself — that’s necessary — but not in front of your child. Adding shame and embarrassment to the equation doesn’t help anyone want to do better next time.
More positive parenting resources
I found so much value in a number of resources. These totally changed the way I approach discipline and parenting, and while we still have plenty of tough moments, I’ve found that those tough times are usually when I’m distracted or not really practicing positive parenting because I’m stressed or busy. When a meltdown happens these days, I can usually identify where I slacked off — I was glued to my phone when my kid needed me, or I responded harshly to their whining. I don’t blame myself (I’m human), but I just shrug and get back on track.
Here are the resources I’ve used that work:
- How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, by Joanna Faber and Julie King
- Resources from Hand in Hand Parenting
- Laura Markham’s online Peaceful Parenting course
- Resources and podcasts from Avital, of The Parenting Junkie
When You Need More Help
If your mom gut (or dad gut, or grandpa/grandma gut) is telling you that something more is going on than just a willful, spirited child, please talk to your pediatrician or contact a professional. This is particularly true if you have a child who is endangering themselves (or others), who talks about hurting themselves, or who doesn’t seem to be improving with time and effort. These techniques can make a huge difference, but you might need extra support from a professional. Don’t wait — the sooner you get help, the better. And if there is any concern about self-harm, call your pediatrician right now or go to the ER. As a former ER nurse, we can help connect you to resources.
Bonus tip: How to get your kid to listen, every time
I go crazy when I’m running around, trying to get kids out the door and bags packed and people dressed, and I’m shouting instructions at kids to put on shoes or go find their backpack, and no one does a blessed thing. I repeat myself over and over and over, becoming increasingly frustrated, until we’re in a yelling match and someone starts crying (sometimes it’s me).
There is an amazingly useful article by Sarah Rosensweet of Peaceful Parenting that gives great advice on this topic. The one that stood out to me was that we sometimes inadvertently train our kids not to listen. When we’re giving instructions while running around doing something else (and not actually enforcing the limit), kids learn that we don’t mean what we say until we’re yelling.
This is an intensive method, but by laying the groundwork, you save yourself screaming and yelling and fighting later. Basically, you just don’t let your kid ignore you. Ever. You give an instruction, and if it’s ignored, you immediately go over and calmly, directly engage your child. TV turned off, screens down, making eye contact. Then you accompany your child until they complete the direction.
Not following directions is simply never an option.
Is this difficult to practice 100% of the time? Is it really taxing to do, especially if you’re trying to cook dinner/put together the diaper bag/nurse a baby? Absol-freaking-lutely.
But it also works.
What are your tips and suggestions handling tantrums and meltdowns in spirited children? Share your advice in the comments below!
Are you struggling with tantrums or meltdowns?
It’s rough, mama.
Never forget, you are a good mom. You wouldn’t be here on the internet, at the end of an intense post about handling outbursts and meltdowns, if you didn’t care.
You are a good mom.
YOU ARE A GOOD MOM.
If you’re still looking for your tribe, and need some support in the meantime, just email me at [email protected]. I got your back.