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Discipline Strategies: 5 Simple Steps to Stop Meltdowns in Public

Drama-free discipline tips to diffuse tantrums, tears, and torment even (or especially) in public.
Stop public tantrums and tears with these 5 strategies
By: Cara J. Stevens

Got drama? Welcome to the club. Sometimes it feels like every time you hit the grocery store or grandma's house, your kids take it as a cue to unleash their inner beast. To keep tantrums and bad behavior in check, you need two things: patience, and discipline strategies you can call upon at a moment's notice.


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"Temper tantrums and meltdowns can be a huge stressor for parents," says Katie Hurley, author of The Happy Kid Handbook. "They always seem to happen at the most inopportune moments and in the one place you really don't want to deal with them."

There's a good reason for that. Tantrums usually happen when the pressure is on. Being pressed for time, stressing good behavior, or finding yourself out of a normal routine can be enough to set a child off.

As parents, we are so tied to our kids, that when they have meltdowns, our first reaction is to react — yell, scream, threaten, and generally join in the tantrum. Unfortunately, our instincts do not serve us well in these types of situations. "Parental stress increases the stress of the child. If parents yell during a tantrum, the tantrum will worsen," Hurley advises. As hard as it may seem, you need to fight your instinct to yell back.

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"A temper tantrum is an attempt to push back when it all gets to be too much," explains Dr. Kim John Payne, author of The Soul of Discipline. His biggest piece of advice when reacting to a tantrum is to not take it personally. "A tantrum is a child's attempt to orient themselves by pushing out hard against the world. Their world is you."

His discipline strategies revolve around one simple concept: "Understand that a tantrum is not personal and avoid getting swept up in the anger, but rather try to stay calm, firm and kind."

Simmer Down Before Things Explode

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Tantrums don't happen without warning, although sometimes it's hard to see the triggers and the warning signs. Consider a teapot. Fill it with water and apply heat, and the temperature will start rising, building up a head of steam. First, you hear the activity like a simmer or slow boil, but eventually, the steam will need to escape through the valve. The teapot will start whistling until you remove the heat and allow the water to simmer back down.

That is a temper tantrum. With children, often we ignore the first signs of a simmering problem. Sometimes, we even see the heat and pressure rising, but don't have the time or tools necessary to stop it before it bursts.

It helps if you can recognize the things that set your child off. Some common triggers include:

  • Lack of proper sleep the night before
  • Being hungry or thirsty
  • Being rushed
  • Being removed from something fun
  • Being subjected to unrealistic or strict expectations
  • Parent or family stress
  • Having enough unstructured play time or downtime

If your child's tantrums are happening often and you can't decipher the triggers, Hurley suggests keeping a "meltdown journal."

"Look for patterns. I often encourage parents to note triggers, time of day, and what was happening just prior to the meltdown. In tracking meltdowns, parents can collect clues and make the necessary changes to avoid repeating the meltdown."

Keep Calm and Change Gears

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Despite our best attempts to avoid meltdowns, they will inevitably occur as your child learns to self-soothe and find his or her peace with the environment. If a meltdown does occur, channel your inner calm first. Then follow these steps:

  1. Take a few deep breaths before reacting, or take a moment to figure out what to do.
  2. Next, remove yourself from the situation by calmly taking your child by the hand — or picking them up if necessary. Even if you walk just a few feet away and go off to the side, it's enough to change the scenery and give you both a moment to pause.
  3. Stay close to your child and don't say much. Your calming presence and lack of reaction will help your child calm down. Hold them close if you need to restrain physical outbursts, but you don't need to say much at all. During a tantrum, your child's speech reception centers are closed for business, so telling a child to "use your words" or attempting to reason in the heat of the moment will fall on deaf ears.
  4. After taking a few deep breaths, Dr. Payne suggests murmuring positive, soothing statements. "Say things that are simple, short and empathetic... 'I know, it is so hard,' or simply, 'Uh huh.' Say it quietly, in a soft voice, as it is not the words your child is receiving, but your gesture of understanding."
  5. When your child has calmed down, create an action plan with simple, calm instructions such as: "I know you want to leave now, but we have to pay for our groceries first. Then we can go to the playground like I promised."

Avoid the temptation to bribe, promise, or beg your child to behave a certain way, as this will lower your credibility and leadership in the situation. Letting your child know you are in control models positive coping strategies and reassures them that you have their back when they feel lost and overwhelmed.

Photo credit: GIPHY

One final piece of advice from Dr. Payne: "Above all, know that when you are doing these things you are directly answering your children's call for you to help bring them back from being emotionally lost and oriented. Signal and response is an ancient dance between child and parent, and a tantrum is just a more intense signal that needs your calm, firm, and kind response."

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