Meltdowns, tantrums and sulking all signal a communication breakdown between parent and child. (Especially for toddlers who are just starting to learn how to talk.) And while staring down a kid in the midst of a full-blown tantrum is the stuff mom-memes are made of—with “it’s funny because it’s true” missives on felt letterboards—if a parent hasn’t acknowledged the way they process and manage their own emotions and stress, it’s hard for tantrum management tactics to work.
Why preventing tantrums means acknowledging your own reactions to stress
“So much of the work is before the meltdown,” says Brandy Wells, a Columbus, Ohio-based licensed independent social worker specializing in childhood mental health, mom of three girls, and creator of My Motherhood Magic.
“When your child is experiencing a meltdown, you can become very frustrated…and most of the time it just doesn’t come out in a very healthy way,” Wells says.
There’s another downside to reacting emotionally to your child’s tantrum: Besides making you feel like the #worstmomever, your reaction is also teaching your child that negative attention-seeking behaviors actually work—increasing the likelihood you two will be squaring off again in the exact same way.
Breaking that cycle—or stopping it before it starts—begins with you.
Understand your own stress responses
Get in touch with how you react to stress in general, but especially in front of your child. When someone cuts you off in traffic, are you yelling and hitting your steering wheel? Are you and your partner prone to huffing and puffing when confronted with an inconvenience? Do you talk about your feelings or keep things bottled up until you explode? Kids pick up everything—and that includes these cues on expressing emotions.
You’ll also want to explore if you have any past trauma around sharing your feelings—for example, a parent who ignored your tears and told you to toughen up. If you were often told “stop crying!” when you were a child, you may now find yourself replicating that pattern with your own kids.
Adults and children alike feel “big feelings.” The important thing is showing your child how to deal with them.
Model what to do with “big feelings”
Consistent modeling helps your children identify their feelings and recognize the body and mind connection that happens when people—regardless of age—feel big feelings. Instead of swearing or lashing out in a stressful moment, take a breath and say what you’re feeling: “Mommy feels nervous about being late for our appointment. It made me mad that this person cut in front of me. I can feel it in my stomach.”
In order to show kids how to manage those big emotions, you have to do it, too: “I’m upset, so I’m going to take 10 big, deep breaths to help me calm down.”
“We often sit and breathe together,” says Sueann Hall, a mother of one who blogs about motherhood and raising a son with Sagittal Craniosynostosis. “When he’s throwing a tantrum, I may be calm, but I’m probably five seconds away from losing it too.”
Talk about emotions with your kids
It also helps to reshape your understanding of children’s emotions, says Brandy Wells of My Motherhood Magic. They’re valid, just like yours are.
“We dismiss kids’ feelings all the time. It’s very easy for us to [say], ‘They’re babies, they’re kids, they feel either happy or sad.’ Kids feel an immense amount of emotions just like we do as adults. So it’s important for us to practice with them, I recognize you, I hear you, I see you.“
You can make these kinds of conversations around feelings a regular occurrence in your home through reading and talking about books and playing games together.
“One of the best ways to increase a child’s emotional vocabulary is through reading,” says licensed clinical social worker Sarit Fassazadeh of Healing With Purpose Therapy in Encino, California. “Some great books I recommend are The Feelings Book by Dr. Lynda Madison, My Book of Feelings by Tracey Ross, A Whole Bunch of Feelings by Jennifer Moore-Mallimos and Gustavo Mazali, and What Are Feelings? by Christine Pym.”
“Play therapists have known for years that games are the secret to getting kids to talk about their feelings,” says Amy Rollo, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Heights Family Counseling in Houston. “One of my favorite games would be Feelings CandyLand where you share a feeling that corresponds to the color you land on. A similar adaptation can be made with Uno, or you can play Chutes and Ladders and share a positive when you go up the ladder and a negative experience when you go down a chute. Almost any game can be adapted to sharing emotions.”
It’s okay to not be okay
By reckoning with your own relationship with feelings, you’ll be able to better help your kids navigate theirs.
“The only way that kids can keep their bodies calm is if they’re in environments that are calm. If the people that are around them are calm,” says Wells. “If you want your kid to calm down, the best thing to do is keep your cool.”
But hey, life happens—and those mom memes about toddler tantrums exist for a reason. Sometimes we don’t always have the right response ready at the right time. And when that happens, allow yourself the grace to tap out when you need to.
“A lot of times I tell parents and myself, ‘Walk away,'” says Wells. “It’s okay to be like, ‘I’m so flustered right now, I just need to walk away.'”
As hard as it can be to remember in stressful moments, your feelings as a mother are valid, even when they feel overwhelming. Being kind to yourself is the first step in knowing how to respond to your child’s emotions—and breaking the tantrum cycle.