My Grandson's Meltdowns Are Wearing Us Out!

Filed under: Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Dear AdviceMama,

My daughter has two boys, ages 6 and 4, who are sweet but quarrelsome, especially the 4-year-old. He has a strong personality and throws terrible tantrums in public and at home when he does not get what he wants. His mom seems to have tried everything, but nothing works. Please advise.

Frustrated Grandma

Dear Frustrated,

In truth, kids develop resilience by repeatedly living through the frustrating experience of not getting what they want. But it's not easy to endure a child's displeasure, especially with children who have strong or explosive personalities.

Parents who tremble at the prospect of their youngster becoming upset end up resorting to reasoning -- or giving in -- to escape the temper tantrum drama. As your daughter has discovered, "trying everything" to stop a child's meltdowns sometimes just makes them worse. Here's my advice:

• First, find out if your daughter wants your input! As sweet as it is that you want to help, make sure that you don't come across as meddling or judgmental, and that she is genuinely open to your advice.

• Focus on avoiding tantrums by recognizing when your grandson is tired, hungry or over-stimulated. Meltdowns often happen as a result of children being pushed beyond their physical or emotional limit. Recognize when your grandson has reached the end of his rope and don't take him on one more errand, or make him stay at the table until everyone has finished their meal, if he's on the verge of falling apart.

• During a tantrum, stay nearby, but do not try to explain why he can't have what he wants. The biggest mistake most parents make during temper tantrums is that they try to reason with a child who is temporarily "out of his mind." I don't mean that literally, or course, but when a child is emotionally wound up, he is incapable of processing logic and rational thought.

• Use what I call "Act I Parenting," which diffuses the "storm" of a child's upset by allowing him to feel heard and understood. "You're so mad! You really wanted those cookies!" Give words to his feelings, without following up with Act II explanations, like, "... but you can't eat the cookies because they'll spoil your dinner." Simply acknowledge his upset, without explaining why he can't have what he wants.

Disappointment is a fact of life; no parent can ensure that their child is never unhappy. Support your daughter in using these ideas, and offer her your empathy and understanding -- rather than blame and shame -- as she deals with her challenging son, and things should calm down.

Watch my video for even more tips on how to handle meltdowns.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.