The meltdown aisle 5 can be stressful and embarrassing. Here’s how to deal with temper tantrums with a simple strategy and a free tool.
So you have a child with big intense feelings or some developmental needs. You need more strategies for how to deal with temper tantrums.
Does your toddler scream every time you need to buckle the car seat? You try to reason with your child, but it only makes things worse.
Or maybe your preschooler collapses into tears every time you announce it’s time to pick up the toys? You feel frustrated that it has to be so hard.
Does your school-age child struggle routinely when it’s time to turn off the TV? You give the direction and then it’s crickets – no response and no action. So you turn off the TV and your child has a total meltdown.
You are not alone. These are common challenges and fortunately, you can deal with temper tantrums with one simple tool.
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When do Temper Tantrums Start?
Temper tantrums are a normal developmental phase. At my youngest child’s 15 month appointment, the medical assistant actually asked, “Is Patrick having tantrums yet?”
Temper tantrums usually start between 12 and 18 months. They tend to get worse between 2 and 3 years old.
Often they start to get better around 4 or 5 years old. If you have a child with a developmental disability like autism or a neurological difference like ADHD, they can continue when children are older.
Understanding that meltdowns are developmentally appropriate can help you plan for how to deal with temper tantrums.
Why Does My Child have Temper Tantrums?
So you know temper tantrums are typical, but what is the trigger for them?
There are a lot of reasons why children have temper tantrums, but it simply comes down to this:
The demands of the situation are greater than your child’s ability to cope.
Children do not have fully developed brains to manage their emotions the way adults can. The brain is a construction zone until age 25 or so.
Young children can cope with certain levels of frustration or disappointment. But at some point, they will lose the ability to stay calm.
So it is helpful to figure for your child what are the common causes for your child’s temper tantrums.
Common Causes for Temper Tantrums
Now you know temper tantrums happen when your child can no longer cope. But to best deal with temper tantrums, you’re going to need to figure out the specific triggers for your child.
Here are some common causes for temper tantrums:
- feeling overtired
- feeling powerless
- lack of choices/too many choices
- unclear boundaries
- lack of communication skills
- lack of language skills
- difficulty with impulse control
- difficulty with transitions
- difficulty with flexibility
- difficulty with managing disappointment
- low frustration tolerance
Take a look at this list and see which ones jump out as challenges for your child. Often knowing what the weak skill is will help you deal with temper tantrums.
From there you can also help your child strengthen the weak skills to gain some emotional regulation.
Emotional Regulation and Tantrums
Children develop out of tantrums as they gain skills for emotional regulation. Managing to cope with intense feelings is called emotional regulation.
Most emotional regulation happens in the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain. This is the last part of the brain to fully develop.
This means two things for your child:
- children will struggle with emotional regulation
- it’s up to you as a parent to figure out how to support your child while their brain develops
Let’s also remember many adults struggle with emotional regulation, too. Have you seen impatient adults waiting in line at the grocery store?
While you now know your child physically does not have the capacity to control their feelings, you still need a strategy for how to deal with temper tantrums.
Prevent Temper Tantrums
The simplest way to deal with temper tantrums is to prevent them.
Step 1: Understand Common Triggers
Once you have a sense of the triggers and the common instances when tantrums.
Your toddler has a temper tantrum about half the time you need to buckle the car seat because they hate being restrained.
Step 2: Use Simple Communication
When preventing tantrums, you need to use fewer words. Remember, your child’s brain doesn’t have the same skills as an adult’s.
Adults use WAY TOO MANY words when trying to deescalate a temper tantrum.
You might say, “you need to buckle your car seat now or I’m going to be late for work.”
That’s too many words for a little child who’s about to have a tantrum and emotionally dysregulated. You’re also placing the burden of logic and empathy on the child.
Step 3: Pair a Preferred Task
When there is a common trigger – a dislike for being trapped or restrained – pair it with something your child enjoys.
You can have a special car seat online toy for your child. Your child gets in the car seat, then gets to play with that toy.
Something parents need their children to do first, followed then by something their children would prefer to do.
We call the first item the non-preferred task because your child doesn’t want to do it, and it’s followed then by a preferred task, or something your child wants to do.
Step 4: Use “First, Then” Language
All three of these steps are included in this last step: use a “First, Then” statement.
So you would say to your child prior to the transition to the car and the tantrum, ” Frost you get in the car seat. Then you play with the light-up action figure toy.”
“First, Then” Language to Avoid Tantrums
Here are more examples for how to use “First, Then” Language to avoid tantrums:
- First, you brush your teeth, then you play Legos.
- First, you put away the blocks, then you watch TV.
- First, you eat dinner, then you play.
- First, you put on your pajamas, then we read a story.
- First, you sit on the potty, then you take your bath.
When you use a “First, Then” visual it shows your child that he or she needs to do the challenging task first followed by a preferred or fun task.
How to Deal with Temper Tantrums (a Simple Tool)
For most children, switching to using “First, Then” Language is enough to reduce tantrums. However, many children will need more support,
When the brain hasn’t fully developed in your child, you need to work with what your child’s brain can do well. You can help your child process information in a way that works with their brain.
Brain research has demonstrated that our brains can process images a lot better than spoken language. Pictures place fewer demands on the brain.
When your child is facing a difficult situation, your child has a lot less brainpower to deal with words than with pictures. So using a visual will help stop your child’s meltdowns.
Benefits of Using First, Then Visuals for Temper Tantrums
Besides ending temper tantrums, there are other benefits of using “First, Then” language and visuals.
Remember the list of triggers above? Those skills are improved with “First, Then” language and visuals.
Builds Language Skills
First, it strengthens receptive and expressive language (hearing and speaking). Adults eliminate all the extra words in difficult situations and focus on the essential words.
This allows children to internalize the vocabulary. So for children who are triggered into tantrums from language and communication skills, this helps.
Makes the Boundary Clear
Second, using “first, then” language demonstrates to children that their needs are valuable. But you’re still setting a clear boundary.
By placing the important routine activity or task “First”, you’re demonstrating the task is non-negotiable. However, you are honoring your child’s needs or requests in the “Then” spot.
For children who struggle with unclear boundaries, using “first, then” language will help you deal with temper tantrums.
Teaches Impulse Control
Third, using “first, then” language helps children develop impulse control.
As you use “First, Then,” your child will begin to internalize that they can do the non-preferred task first, and be rewarded with the “Then” fun task.
Your child will practice delayed gratification through using “First, Then.” This will help with tantrums tremendously because your child’s patience will improve.
Fourth, “First, Then” language helps children learn new skills. Sometimes when a child tantrums, it’s because what is being asked is hard for them.
For a lot of children, brushing their teeth is a real challenge.
Thus, using “First, Then” you can begin introducing the new skill gradually. This will increase the child’s persistence in difficult tasks.
“First, Then” language and visuals help you deal with temper tantrums. Plus they build the skills that cause tantrums in the first place.
But My Child Wants to Control Everything
If you find yourself resistant to using “First, Then” language, you might be thinking, “My child wants to control everything.”
You might believe your child can do the non-preferred “First” skill but she is just stubborn and only wants to get her way.
Don’t you want to get your way, too?
Parents Want their Needs Met, too
When you’re asking your child to buckle her car seat, you’re trying to get your needs met, too. You want to get to work on time.
A lot of adults use this script that children are just manipulative. Sadly, it’s really prevalent in our society and reinforced in a lot of parenting advice.
But in reality, all people want to get their way. It’s part of being human. We all have needs and desires.
Most Children Can’t Be Manipulative
Being manipulative requires a lot of advanced thinking and planning skills that most children lack due to typical development.
If your child has any developmental delays, chances are they are lacking these skills even more.
Your child has temper tantrums because he lacks the ability to think proactively to solve his problems in a more effective way.
Thus, using the “First, Then” language is a way to teach your child to get everyone’s needs met in your family.
Using the Tool for Temper Tantrums
You’ll need to gather a few supplies and prepare the First, Then Visuals before you can use them. Alternatively, you can also just print out the cards, skip laminating, and reprint once the First, Then Visual cards get icky looking.
- First, Then Visuals Printables
- Laminator (or self-laminating pouches)
- Washable dry-erase markers
Steps for the common scenarios
- First print these printables. I’ve created six common scenarios and then provided you with a blank board can use.
- You’ll need to either laminate the First, Then visuals or plan to reprint once they are worn. It is better to just start than wait until you can use the cards “perfectly.”
- Start with a task your child already completes with only minor complaint. Then work up to more challenging tasks. (See below)
Steps for the blank scenarios
- First, print the blank board in the printables.
- You can laminate the blank “First, Then” printable or you can place it inside a plastic sheet protector.
- Then draw the pictures for your child with a dry erase marker. We love these Crayola washable dry erase markers because I’ve spent way too much time on laundry stains with regular dry-erase markers.
- Start with a task your child already completes with only minor complaints. Then work up to more challenging tasks. (see below)
- If you don’t want to laminate or find yourself drawing the same thing over and over, print out a bunch of the blank templates and draw in common scenarios you deal with at home. Don’t let perfectionism stop you from using these – your stick figure drawings will work for your child!
As I mentioned above, it’s usually best to start with a task your child already completes with only minor complaints. You’re building familiarity with this process so start with smaller problems and then work up to more challenging tasks.
For example, if brushing teeth is leading to explosive meltdowns in your house, table that for now. If cleaning up toys is just causing minor frustration, start with the clean-up toys problem. As your child gets used to the First, Then process, he or she will gain trust that their needs will be met.
You can build success from there as your child develops skills with delayed gratification and builds frustration tolerance.
Recapping How to Deal with Temper Tantrums
Here’s the recap for busy parents on how to deal with temper tantrums:
- It is normal for children to have temper tantrums.
- Tantrums occur when the demands of the situation are greater than your child’s ability to cope.
- Emotional regulation is your child’s ability to manage difficult feelings.
- The prefrontal cortex controls emotional regulation and it doesn’t fully develop until age 25.
- Grown-ups can have a hard time with big feelings, too!
- Figure out your child’s tantrum triggers.
- It’s effective to pair what your child wants to do (preferred task) with what the adult needs the child to do (non-preferred task)
- When your child is having a meltdown over something they don’t want to do, try using a First, Then language.
- For children with communication difficulties, use the free printable visuals.
- Make sure to start with tasks that are just a little challenging, rather than your biggest challenge with your child.
Your child is not melting down to control you. Your child needs more strategies to cope with difficult situations.
Use First, Then visual as a simple solution to reduce meltdowns, teach your child important skills, and have more peace at home!
Get the printable here.