Tantrums and Meltdowns

–Delana H Stewart   

[You may also be interested in reading the poem “Heart Tears.”]

tantrums, meltdowns, trauma, stress Kicking and screaming at the top of her lungs in the middle of a busy shopping center, my then  five year old daughter began taking off her shoes, then clothes and throwing them wildly.

In beginning to read the book No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-Of-Control Behavior by Jed Baker, I viewed it rather skeptically. After delving into it, I began to see that Dr. Baker provides some valid things to try when regular parenting strategies do not work. I favor, if at all possible, using strategies such as those found in the book Parenting With Love And Logic (Updated and Expanded Edition) by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. However, I do realize parenting, love and logicthere are times (and sometimes children) who no matter how loving, logical, or consistent you are will have a meltdown (and usually at the worst possible moment). Dr. Baker provides quick-fix solutions for those difficult moments, as well as insights into learning what brought on the meltdown and how to establish a game plan to prevent the next one (in a given similar situation).

Here are my notes and thoughts from Dr. Baker’s book. Realize that the meltdown is not a threat to your competence or insult to your parenting. Realize that it is not out of hate. Know that instead, it is because of your child’s inability to cope with frustration.

Crisis Tool of Distraction

In a public setting (store, family or friend’s house, doctor’s office) different strategies need to take place to quickly deescalate a meltdown. “Distraction is a crisis tool. It can be used for calming a meltdown when we do not have a plan already in place (p.41). Distraction should only be allowed one time in the case of task avoidance. Then, we have to come up with a plan to either make the task more tolerable, more relevant, and/or more understandable, and “teach the child better ways to handle frustration.” Find a distraction that works for your child. It may be a joke, a favorite toy or book, a piece of chewing gum, or a phrase and change of direction such as, “Wow! Did you see that! Look at that!” Take your child’s hand and begin walking in the direction of something “new” to see.girl screaming, girl crying, girl throwing fit, tantrum, meltdown

Once the child is then distracted and calm, you can resume what you were doing. Changing the subject, using empathy to validate feelings (That would make me sad/mad too), taking the child for a walk are all ways to offer distractions. Later, a game plan has to be developed.

Triggers (Understanding the Problem)

Look for repeating patterns of behavior that lead to the meltdown. Are there certain things that always trigger a meltdown? According to Dr. Jim Baker, some of these triggers include: sensory stimulation (touch, smell, taste, movement that may upset), lack of structure/routine, internal (hunger, illness, tiredness), demands (commands to work, interact, etc.), waiting, shame/embarrassment, lack of attention or fear of being alone.

When a child is having a meltdown, their brain is literally being hijacked. They cannot reason, cannot think logically. When they are calmed down, then you can begin to deal with the cause and help them to make the needed adjustments.

Dr. Baker provides several scenarios and case studies with examples of what to do in each situation. If you have a child that is prone to meltdowns/tantrums ages 3-12, you might be interested in reading this book further.

Adopting Older Children (especially internationally)

I adopted a five year old girl four years ago. Though she rarely has meltdowns anymore, during the first year it was very common for her to have at least five a day. Knock-down, drag out, kicking and screaming, and then some. At the time, no one I knew had adopted older children (most adopt the two and under age range). No one could advise me through a very traumatic adjustment period. Thankfully, we survived! I learned many things that worked and many that didn’t. I’m sure I made mistakes along the way.

Recently, I got a call from a close friend who just adopted an older child (age 3). She began experiencing some of the same things that I experienced when bringing our daughter home. For the benefit of others who may be going through something similar (or who are considering adopting an older child), here are some thoughts I shared with my friend.

Your daughter is an older child who has now been trapped with the speaking ability of a baby. Babies cry a lot. They are hungry…they cry. They are uncomfortable…they cry. They are sad or mad or confused or lonely or itchy or thirsty….they cry. Your daughter learned how to express these feelings with words…and now her words are powerless. The only thing she has is control. When the ability to control is taken away, she feels like she has nothing. Yes, you do need to exercise control and be in control. And at the same time, yes, she needs to have opportunities where she can have and exercise elements of control, too. Help her begin to see that “shhhh shhhh quiet voices” get extra hugging and snuggling time and “LOUD YELLING VOICES” get cool, refreshing showers.

When my daughter would have a really bad tantrum where she began hurting herself, sometimes the only thing that would bring release from the fight was to put her in the shower and relax and refresh her with water.  I always followed the  shower with a big fluffy warm towel and a hug of forgiveness. Remember, her meltdown at this stage is not an act of direct defiance…it is the instinctive act of a scared or threatened animal.  After 4-6 months, there will be different kinds of meltdowns and you will have to respond differently to each one.

Right now for your daughter almost everything is new and confusing so there are a lot of triggers. Some you will be able to make changes to…but many she will have to learn how to deal with. Once she has words to express her anger or frustration or feeling…the meltdowns will lessen. In empathizing with her you might find a way to help her express her anger. Say: “Oooh you are angry. Let’s do something angry together.” Get a plastic bat or stick and a couple of big pillows (one for you and one for her). Begin making angry faces and hitting your pillow. Hand her a stick/bat and put a pillow in front of her. I did not think to try this with my daughter, so I’m not sure it will work, but it is worth a try to see how she reacts. Another time you might get some old papers or newspaper (make sure she sees you take it out of a trash can so she doesn’t do it to a book or magazine or important document). Get her some old paper and you some old paper. Let your husband hold her with her back to his chest while she is having her angry fit, but you come in front of her with the paper. Sit opposite her. Say: “You are angry. I’m sorry you are angry. Let’s be angry together. Let’s tear trash.” Then, make angry faces and angry sounds (not screams) and begin tearing and ripping the trash. Offer her some paper. Her watching you be angry may be enough of a distraction to get her to stop her fit.

Mostly, in those early days I applied a lot of advice from the love and logic book. Some of it worked with my daughter, some of it did not. For those times that it did not work, I would have liked to have tried some of the strategies presented in Dr. Baker’s book.

Make sure you find some people who will support you, cheer you on, help you out, give you relief and times of release. And, if you think your child might have a sensory disorder or other medical problem, please see your pediatrician and a child psychologist.


***If your child has behavior that is different from his/her peers, it is a good idea to talk with a pediatric neurologist, a pediatrician, and perhaps an occupational therapist. Though some adopted children have reactive attachment disorder (RAD), there are some neurological, medical, and psychological conditions that have some overlapping characteristics. Things like ADHD, ASD, ODD, PTSD, FAS, SPD, Tourette’s, and others should be carefully considered by medical professionals evaluating your child.  See this article on Sensory Processing Disorder and the Adopted Child. Don’t rely on books, checklists, and blog posts alone, have your child evaluated. There may even be some medical concerns such as vitamin deficiencies or food allergies/intolerances that have an adverse affect.


You may also be interested in the following articles on this blog:

Parenting the Internationally Adopted Child (download) or click here to read online.

developing-boundaries-with-kids This article is based on the book Boundaries with Kids by Drs. Cloud and Townsend.(download) Or, click here to read online.

Healthy Love This article is based on the book Loving Your Child Too Much by Drs. Clinton and Sibcy and lectures by these authors concerning raising kids without overprotecting, over-controlling, or overindulging them. (Download) Or, read online.

Understanding Strong-Willed Children (download) Or, click here to read online.

Why Children Bite

Have a New Kid by Friday

10 Questions Adoptive Parents Ask — Short video clips by Dr. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. The 10 clips address these issues:

1. How Do I Handle Manipulation & Control?
2. Will Trust-Based Parenting Work for My Child?
3. Why Won’t My Child Act His Age?
4. How Do I Handle Lying?
5. How Do I Find the Right Professional To Help Us?
6. Should I Parent My Adopted Child Differently Than Birth Children?
7. How Long Do I Have to Parent This Way?
8. Is It Adoption Related or Not?
9. Will Trust-Based Parenting Prepare My Child for the Real World?
10. How Can I Be Fair?

11 thoughts on “Tantrums and Meltdowns

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  10. I agree, overwhelmed children are not able to be at all rational or to manage their behaviour, which can make our job harder – especially if parents are adopting an older child and have no idea what ‘really’ happened in those first few years. And I think we forget that children can remember times before they had words. These are a kind of emotional shadow that can linger through a life-time – triggers that they struggle to identify because the rest of their memories are stored in words. Important post.

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