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  • Writer's pictureP.E.T. South Africa

3 Tips for managing meltdowns

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

Tantrums and meltdowns rank among the top issues parents face. Often these outbursts are unpredictable, sporadic, difficult to respond to, and for some parents embarrassing.

All children are unique and how parents decide to view and handle these situations will differ. However, one thing that we should all come to understand is that meltdowns are also not easy for the child.

An intense display of emotions, during which a child loses control of his/her behaviour, is a sign that the child is experiencing emotions he/she can’t regulate.

Example: Your child is overwhelmed by frustration and a feeling of injustice in the grocery store because you refused to buy him/her a pack of sweets. The child responds by having a meltdown.

Do you:

a) Buy the pack of sweets?

b) Join in the screaming match and use your power?

What if we told you that there's a third option? It is called effective parenting and it makes use of skills such as Active Listening, Identifying Problem Ownership, and Problem Solving.

A parent has the responsibility to teach and model self-regulation to a child; how to deal with disappointment and overwhelming feelings. In the example, the child is struggling to regulate a feeling of injustice and frustration. Below are three ways to effectively handle the situation.

1. Acknowledge the emotion and address the behaviour

You need to learn to separate the two:

  • The behaviour is what the child does. The behaviour is what needs to be addressed when the child is calm.

  • The emotion is what the child feels. The emotion needs to be acknowledged with empathy and kindness.

Avoid saying things like:

  • Don't cry.

  • Stop being so dramatic.

  • Don't be a baby.

  • Stop whining about such a silly thing.

Your child must know that it is okay to have emotions. As a parent, you are encouraged to name the emotion you are witnessing; "I can see you are very disappointed/angry/sad that I'm not going buying you those sweets..."

Educate yourself and your family about emotions. Learn and practice clever and creative skills (like breathing techniques) you can use when dealing with big emotions. Here are some helpful tools, developed by Dr Elmari Botha Verhage, a specialist in play therapy. These tools can help you to expand your child's emotional vocabulary and better communicate emotions:

2. Always backtrack and follow-up on the behaviour

When your child is in the middle of a meltdown, there is little you can do to stop the eruption. The most important things you can do include the following:

  • Remain calm and speak calmly to your child.

  • Bend down to your child's level and acknowledge the emotion; "I can see that you are angry/sad/disappointed and it's okay..."

  • Remind your child of the clever breathing techniques you've been practicing and demonstrate.

  • You can remove your child from that space. But if you are stuck in the line at the grocery store, you'll have to allow the eruption to pass.

Once your child has calmed down, even if only hours or a day later, you need to backtrack to that moment and discuss. Talk about how you felt when he/she had the outburst, remember to describe the behaviour that was unacceptable to you; "When you throw yourself on the floor in the grocery store and scream at the top of your lungs, it makes me feel..."

Ask your child how he/she thinks, you both can prevent something like that in the future. Make him/her part of coming up with a solution.

3. Prevention is better than cure

Parents have control over a child's environment. You can remove a child from an environment, change it, adjust it, or if none of the above, effectively prepare your child for it.

By understanding your child's triggers in a specific environment, you will be able to prevent many meltdowns by using either one of the control techniques above.

Because there are environments, like a grocery store, that you have little control over, you will need to prepare your child for the triggers to come.

For example:

Start your morning routine by discussing what you both will be doing today.

Morning examples:

  • "You are going to school this morning, while mommy/daddy goes to work."

  • "In your lunchbox, I've packed ABC..."

  • "We are getting dressed in rainy day clothes today because it is cold outside."

  • "I'm going to strap you into your car seat when we get to the car.""Mommy/daddy will be picking you up after school."

  • "After school, we will go to the grocery store to buy our groceries for the week."

  • "We will be going to the grocery store to buy the food on our shopping list, and you will sit in the trolley and help spot the groceries.

  • "After the grocery store, we will go home..."


Evening examples:

  • "We are going to make a delicious dinner with the food we bought at the grocery store today."

  • "You can watch your television programme while we are preparing the food or you can help me cook."

  • "The TV will be switched off when we eat."

  • "After dinner, we will clean-up and get you ready for bed."

  • "Think about the bedtime story you want to hear."

  • "Tomorrow we will get up and plan our day again."


Repetition is key! You need to consistently remind your child about their day ahead and what to expect. Ask them to repeat the plans to you. Children feel safe, secure, and emotionally balanced when they know what is going on.

Also, don't be rigid in your conversation. Chances are your child will have questions and make alternative suggestions, go with the flow and enjoy the conversation.

Life doesn't always go as planned and your child will also need to learn this. Learn to be adaptable.

"When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos." - L.R. Knost.

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Disclaimer: The information contained in this communication is not to be construed as medical advice. Consult a professional on any medical or psychological concerns. The articles and blogs are posted only as opinion or ideas, and are general in nature. The administrator takes no responsibility for any action or outcome a reader may make as a result of reading a post.

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