Handling Outbursts and Avoiding Emotional Meltdowns

Every parent has been there or has witnessed it: You are standing in a checkout line at a department store or garage sale. You hear a shriek and the next thing you see is the unbridled fury of a toddler or preschooler who has lost control of his or her emotions. What you may not realize, however, is that there are usually small warning flags that signal an emotional meltdown. Being able to recognize these signals may help you defuse the situation before it is too late.

You may notice your child acting bored, whining, begging, ignoring or just constantly stopping. Cranky behavior such as fidgeting, teasing, irritability and resisting the smallest request is a big clue that an emotional meltdown may be coming soon. Some children simply start to shut down. They may exhibit sleepy or sluggish behavior and refuse fun things or avoid interacting with the rest of the family.

Unfortunately, many parents completely miss these cues. Perhaps it's because of our busy schedules. We have a thousand things to do and so little time to do them. The duties of parenting can be overwhelming. However, when you can avoid a trip through an out-of-control and emotional minefield, you'll have one less thing to deal with in an all-too-busy schedule.

You need to catch problem behavior while it is small and use positive distraction to turn a bad situation around.

  • How to respond immediately
    • Don't start counting. Many parents start warning and threatening their children by counting down before they correct their child's behavior. Sometimes this threat will just lead to a power struggle. Instead, when you notice a small problem behavior, correct it. Simply give an instruction and a small consequence. For instance, you could say, "You are whining. Stop talking. When the timer goes off in two minutes, you may talk again." Or you can give an instruction and use a positive distraction: "You are whining. Come here and listen. Let's play Simon Says, 'Simon says very softly…" This can work if you catch the problem while it's still small.
    • Prevent problem behavior. Children learn best by repetition. Make it part of your child's daily routine to practice working on staying calm. Teach and practice calm-down skills three times in the morning, again at noon and three times at night. Reward your child with praise each time he or she practices. Your child will be nine times better at being calm, regardless of the situation.
    • Head them off at the pass. When you notice your child fidgeting, being cranky or shutting down while you are on an outing, that's your cue to begin wrapping things up. Maybe you will miss the sale or that extra dinner item, but you will have your sanity.
    • Mix it up. Take along a few things to distract and entertain your child. He or she will not be captivated by the new frock you just found. Children have short attention spans and need a variety of things to keep them occupied. Try bringing along some finger fun - books, hand toys, a small flashlight, stickers, flashcards, paper and special crayons, play food - to keep your little one occupied.

Did you know? One out of every 10 children is left-handed.