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8 Tips to Calm Down Your Child’s Meltdowns

These strategies will help your child—and you—calm down.

With families cooped up together at home during COVID-days, kids seem to be having more meltdowns than ever. Whether they are frustrated with online school or with not seeing their friends, kids are generally experiencing more frustrations brought on by isolation and quarantine.

Too often, meltdowns result in screaming matches between parent and child. With younger children, these sometimes lead to violence, with the child hitting or biting the parent or the parent resorting to spanking the child. But, as many parents tell me, spanking doesn’t work. It just makes the child angrier and escalates the power struggles.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents do not spank their children at all. In fact, research suggests that spanking isn’t actually effective in stopping children from being disruptive. Spanking leads to fear, confusion, and anger in children. It may also lead to more hitting and biting since violent behavior from a parent begets violent behavior in a child.

So what does work to calm down a frustrated, angry child who just doesn’t want to get dressed, log in to online school, or eat their breakfast? Here are some time-proven tips that come from my counseling hundreds of parents in my practice. After using these tips consistently, parents come back and tell me they work like magic.

1. Stay calm in front of your child when you are disciplining him. Discipline from a calm place. Do not discipline from anger. Most important of all, don’t yell at your child. A child feels terrible and confused when a parent yells at him. Discipline is most effective if the parent remains calm.

2. Be consistent about discipline. Follow through when you have made a threat. In fact, don’t make any threat that you are not willing to carry through. For example, instead of saying to your child: “You are grounded for the rest of your life,” say, “You are grounded for this weekend. That means no sleepovers or playdates this weekend. That’s final.” The consequence should follow the misbehavior as quickly as possible. For example, “You hit your brother, so you lose TV tonight.”

3. Reward positive behavior by using a star chart. At the end of every day, for the good behavior that you have targeted for change, reward your child with a gold star on the calendar. If your child gets three or four (you decide whether it’s three or four) gold stars during the week, then on Saturday, he gets a special treat. This may be an outing to an ice cream parlor, or a movie, or a pizza place. Use this method to help your child get ready for school on time, to go to bed peacefully at bedtime, etc.

4. Use a reward grab bag. Go to a “dollar store” and buy some inexpensive toys. Giftwrap the toys and put them in a bag. Your child may choose a toy from the bag when you want to reward him for especially good behavior.

5. Give your strong-willed child as many choices as possible. This means picking your battles. Why fight with your preschool-age child if she wants to wear her pajamas all morning or even all day if she’s just staying home? Later on, you can encourage her to get dressed by offering to take her out bike riding or out for frozen yogurt.

6. Have clear consequences for unacceptable behavior: time-outs, loss of television, computer, or video game privileges, grounding, etc. Explain the system of consequences and rewards clearly to your child.

7. Use the “count-of-3” rule. If your child is having a tantrum or misbehaving in another way, calmly and firmly count to three and then invoke a consequence. For example, a parent may say, “Please pick up your toys. I’m going to count to three. If you haven’t done it by the time I count to three, you will lose television (or video game) privileges for the rest of the day.” More about this rule can be found in the book 1-2-3 Magic, which I recommend that all parents of young children read.

8. Don’t give in to your child’s tantrums. Children learn to have more tantrums if that is how they can get their way. Show your child that a tantrum will not get him what he wants.

You might be thinking, “I’ve tried some of these strategies, and they don’t work.” My guess is that you haven’t used them consistently and calmly. Try thinking out ahead of time what you’re going to do when your child has the next meltdown. Then follow through. You’ll find that they work like magic.

More from Marilyn Wedge Ph.D.
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