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January 6, 2015

Managing meltdowns in older children

Temper tantrums — think toddlers, right? Just when we think we are done with that stage of development with our children, we learn that our older children are prone to bursts of emotions.

Once our children are past the toddler years, it is easy to assume that tantrums or meltdowns will be a thing of the past. But, try standing next to the check-out register at a store with a tired and hungry eight-year-old surrounded by candy displays, and you both may experience a meltdown. Yes, it still happens but the reasons and the strategies to help with these meltdowns differ with older children.

For children past the toddler years, meltdowns, or outbursts of emotion such as yelling or crying, can be caused by many different factors. While it can be difficult in the moment, try to identify the possible causes. Is it late in the day? Has it been awhile since your child's last meal or snack? Could your child be nervous? Hunger, fatigue, feeling misunderstood, over-stimulation or agitation are common reasons children may meltdown when presented with a seemingly innocent situation, like being told, "No, we are not buying candy."

Remember, too, that even older children are continuing to learn how to cope with emotions and express themselves. It is important as parents that we continue to help them recognize and positively manage disappointment and frustration.  We want them to express themselves. We want to help them learn how to deal with their emotions.

When presented with a meltdown, although it may be difficult, it is important to remain calm. Now is not necessarily the time to discipline a child. Instead try to remain loving but firm. Instead of just saying "no" to the candy, try acknowledging that you recognize it is disappointing. If you feel like it is appropriate, you can return to discussion later, once everyone is calm. Too many words (albeit, well-meaning words) at the wrong time can often add to intensity of the situation.

Also, try to recognize when you might be setting your child up for a meltdown. For example, if your child has been at school all day, followed by soccer practice, he is likely to be tired and hungry. If you must run errands on the way home as often is the case with our real lives, consider bringing a healthy snack for your child to help so he isn't waiting a long time until dinner. Consider whether there are regular times when your child melts down. Is bedtime always a challenge? Rather than try to correct the behavior in the moment, find time away from the situation when you can all sit down and talk about expectations and consequences.

And, make sure the expectations are the same every day. If your child is expected to be in bed by 8 p.m., give her a 20 minute foreshadowing. If, after a period of time, there has not been any movement toward getting to bed, remind her of the consequence: "I see you are choosing no ______ for tomorrow because you are not following the plan we set."

Being consistent, firm, calm and patient can actually be reassuring and help children learn to manage their own behaviors. And, while meltdowns are normal, if your child is having multiple tantrums a day, biting, hitting, or is unable to calm him- or herself down within 15 minutes, consider talking with your child's physician. How do you handle a meltdown? Are there times when your child is more likely to have them?