In a world teeming with uncertainty, there are a few things we can rely on: tantrums and emotional meltdowns from our children among them. And while we have no choice but to weather these storms alongside our kids, how we respond to these outbursts can make all the difference.
And I say this with the experience of someone who has tried all possible post-tantrum tactics, from the totally ineffective to the instantly appeasing and everything in between. With a highly reactive child at home, I’ve had my fair share of practice at managing meltdowns. While there are a number of tricks I’ve learned to both sidestep tantrums and recover from them quickly, the most critically important piece of advice I can share is this: take the time to connect with your kid once everyone’s emotions have cooled.
While there are a number of tricks I’ve learned to both sidestep tantrums and recover from them quickly, the most critically important piece of advice I can share is this: take the time to connect with your kid once everyone’s emotions have cooled.
According to Sofia Mendoza, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker based in California, checking in with your child post-meltdown is one of the most important things you can do. Doing so “models empathy and contributes to a sense of belonging and importance for children,” she said. “Taking time to connect with our kids after a tantrum helps us have crucial conversations about big feelings and how to cope with them, and even expectations for future behavior.”
Think of this moment as repair work—especially if, in the heat of the meltdown, you lost your temper too. Checking in with your little one gives you the opportunity to apologize, if the situation necessitates it, and reassures your child that they have your unconditional love no matter how upset you showed yourself to be.
If you think you can connect with your child in the midst of a tantrum, think again. When we are riding intense emotions, it can be tough to access the logical side of our brain, Mendoza explained. “It’s hard for adults, and even harder for children,” she said. That’s why it is so important to get the timing right and only approach your child once you are both feeling calm.
“Having conversations about challenging feelings, while feeling safe and loved, is such a healthy way to express love, but also to model healthy communication and limit setting. We want our kids to learn that repair is possible,” Mendoza said.
It’s About Teamwork
Once you and your child are calm and ready to revisit the moment in question, try approaching the issue as a team. You’re not looking to punish your little one, but instead help understand what happened. In that way, you can help prevent a similar outburst in the future.
“Being able to calmly listen and talk to each other about what happened can help us understand the incident,” Mendoza said. “It can even help us parents see how we might have contributed to the problem or address future vulnerabilities (like hunger, tiredness, or being overstimulated).” For example, Mendoza added, if you make the snap decision to abruptly leave the park or a playdate without advance warning to your kid, it’s understandable that they may lose their cool. Talking it over afterward can serve as a reminder that no one likes to be uprooted from an activity they’re enjoying, and that everyone deserves a heads-up beforehand.
In that instance, your response might be to first validate your child’s feelings of hurt and frustration. Then, make a pact that, in the future, you’ll give a five-minute warning before it’s time to leave. It’s then your child’s responsibility to acknowledge they heard the warning and leave without issue when the time is up.
Nurturing Your Relationship
Post-tantrum repair work gives us a wonderful opportunity to smooth out wrinkles in our relationships. This can be a chance to remind our children how much we love and delight in them. “Connection in the form of laughter, hugs, respect, play, understanding, compassion, structure, and appropriate limits all contribute to our sense of belonging and importance,” Mendoza said. “This connection is what also earns us parents ‘money in the bank,’ making it easier for kids to comply down the road, while also rewarding parents with the much-needed bonding we need from our children too.”
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