How to manage your child’s meltdowns

Children’s meltdowns and tantrums….

If you’re a parent or teacher, you’ve possibly seen them a hundred times.

You’ve listened to your 3-year-old scream for an hour because it was time to turn the TV off.

You’ve wrangled your 6-year-old who lay crying on the floor of the supermarket because you refused to buy them the chocolate bar that was conveniently positioned at the checkout.

You’ve been yelled at by your 12-year-old who has told you they hate you and have slammed their bedroom door shut just so that you know how cross they really are.

We all lose our tempers sometimes, but why do some children find it so hard to control their feelings?

Why do some kids have more meltdowns than others?

Tantrum Triggers

There are many ‘triggers’ for a tantrum, but your child’s ability to calm down and see reason might be affected by two things.

1. Whether your child has the capacity and tools to deal with big feelings like frustration, disappointment, sadness, and fear.

2. Whether having a tantrum has been a tactic your child has successfully used in the past and they have therefore learned that having a meltdown is a great way to get what they want quickly.

How to tame your child's tantrums

Behaviour is communication

When kids are very young, they often don’t understand or are yet to build the language skills needed to describe how they feel.

They may not have the ability to say…

‘Please don’t turn Bluey off, Mummy. I love this show and I get frustrated when you don’t give me any warning that I need to stop watching.’


‘We’ve been at Bunnings for two hours, Dad. I’m feeling tired and hungry and I want to go home.’ I can’t keep up with you and it’s all getting too much for me.’


‘Mum, I find learning really hard and my brain is exhausted after my long day at school. I can’t keep up with your requests for me to sit still and do homework. It’s all getting too much for me.’

For many children, behaviour is communication.

Having a meltdown is one strategy that your child may use to let someone they trust manage their stress or worry.

Your child’s need to hand their big feelings over to you or another grown-up (such as a teacher) may simply be because they are not mature enough to understand the predicament they are in and the feelings they are experiencing.

Alternately, your child’s problem-solving skills may not be well-developed enough for them to find an alternative to a tantrum.

Managing children's tantrums and meltdowns

What happens when it all gets too much? 

When your child ‘loses their schnitzel’ at home, in the playground or at the shopping centre, their behaviour may be a sign that they need help to deal with the emotions they’re feeling.

It’s important to remember though, that the middle of the meltdown is probably NOT the best time for a ‘teaching moment’ between you and your child.

No matter how much you talk, no matter how logical your argument… if your child’s emotional ‘cup’ is full and overflowing, no amount of logic or words will bring that cup back to half full.

If your child is confronted with a situation that they haven’t yet learned to manage, it’s quite natural (and sometimes developmentally expected) for them to respond with a ‘fight or flight’ reaction.

It’s almost like a survival response to a situation they can’t get out of.

If your child can’t run away from the overwhelmingly busy supermarket or you’re forcing the issue by leaving the park when they don’t want to go, their response is to fight.

A meltdown may be the only thing they have their repertoire to express how they feel and get you to notice.

Tips for managing kids' tantrums

Tantrums and Meltdowns – A power play

But what about kids who do have the language and emotional regulation skills to express their feelings, but simply choose not to use them?

If this sounds like your child, maybe your son or daughter has had success with a tantrum tactic in the past.

If you’ve previously given in to their temper tantrums, it’s quite likely that your child has learned that a tantrum or meltdown is a quick and effective way of getting what they want.

When your kids are in a stressful situation, have a tantrum and you give in to them, they learn that that’s all they need to do to get the outcome they want.

  • They don’t have to learn how to be patient.
  • They don’t need to manage their feelings or find a way to resolve conflict.
  • They learn that all they have to do is have a meltdown and then their problem becomes your problem.

The tantrum becomes a power play because how it escalates or gets resolved doesn’t depend on them, it depends on you.

Do you shout? Threaten? Remove a privilege? Restrain or even spank your children? Or do you simply give in?

Let’s face it, to keep the peace and avoid the embarrassment of a poorly behaved child’s public performance, we’ve all gone down the path of least resistance once or twice.

Either way, when your child learns that throwing a tantrum works on you, they come to expect that this kind of tactic will work on everyone.

Teachers, peers, coaches, grandparents, and other community members, of course, will see this differently, and if your child can’t manage their feelings, they risk losing a lot.

Tantrums and meltdowns: Parents

As parents, we’ve probably all done it at some time or another.

We’ve been embarrassed by our child’s supermarket display, so we’ve bought the chocolate bar to placate them.

We’ve left the TV on for another 20 minutes so that we can get our pre-schooler out the door without drama.

We’ve put our teenager’s outbursts down to ‘hormones’ and excused their behaviour because they must be feeling out of sorts.

But perhaps a good question to ask ourselves is ‘Is my response to this tantrum in my child’s best interest?’

It’s natural to not want your child to feel sad, frightened, disappointed, or uncomfortable.

But when you give in to your child who is having a tantrum or a meltdown, you’re probably not teaching them the skills they need to overcome challenges and build resilience.

Instead, you’re showing them that, if their behaviour is demanding and difficult enough, then they can get their way.

This might not seem to be too big an issue for a 4-year-old… but what happens when your tantrum-prone 4-year-old becomes a temperamental 14-year-old who is physically bigger than you?

Or worse, a grown adult whose only method of managing emotion is to lash out with no concern for the perspectives, feelings, or safety of others?

Supporting our kids to manage their big feelings is part of the ‘job’ of being a parent.

Setting boundaries for behaviour provides children with the certainty they need to learn to make good choices.

If we were all given a manual for managing our kids’ meltdowns when they were born, life for families would be so much easier.

Sadly, like mine, your children probably didn’t come with a how-to guide, so if you need help, reach out to your child’s teachers, doctor, or a child psychologist for support.

Sometimes the guidance of someone who is outside the bubble of your family is just the person you need to get your meltdown-prone child back on track.

© Sonja Walker
Kids First Children’s Services

Need guidance to support your child’s behaviour?

Kids First’s experienced psychology team understands kids’ behaviour and has helped hundreds of families manage children’s meltdowns. Contact us at our clinic in Sydney’s northern beaches for professional advice and strategies that work.

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