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How to Control an Extreme Public Tantrum

Dr. Seth Meyers


At a recent soccer game for my six-year old daughter, I witnessed one of the messiest child meltdowns I have ever seen. The tantruming six-year old, fortunately, was not mine, and all the parents watched it unfold with Halloween-like horror across their faces. Yes, I had empathy for the mother as her daughter screamed and then pushed and punched her, but I also thought about how the mother was doing things that made the situation worse.

Take a look at the following simple steps to control a public meltdown in your child, and remember that the extreme tantrums are largely controllable.

Don’t pick up your school-age child as if she’s a toddler.

The first thing this stressed mother did when her daughter started screaming was to pick her up. Picking your child up is terrific if your child is a baby or a toddler, but parents shouldn’t be carrying their six- and seven-year old children, no matter how upset their children are! At this point, parents should be encouraging independence as opposed to the kind of dependence seen with babies and toddlers.

Remove your child from the crowd.

The next thing this parent did was to hold court in front of the many other kids and parents, and to get into a full-fledged argument with her daughter while everyone watched. If this happens to you, remove your child from the environment and move to a place where there is nothing stimulating or distracting.

At first, don’t talk to or touch your child.

In the first couple of minutes of a bad meltdown, don’t talk or try to touch your child in any way. The littlest thing can trigger your child in this situation, so simply act as a mirror and don’t do anything to add to the problem. Get down to your child’s eye level if your child is small and say this: “Okay, I am listening to you now. Tell me from the start what happened that made you upset.” Listen until they are done talking, and then say this: “Now I am going to talk, and it’s your turn to listen.” If your child will listen, tell them in two or three sentences what the lesson is. If your child won’t listen and starts to talk again, stop talking and listen again. Very soon they will have said everything they need to say, and they will calm down and listen.

Distract them by mentioning something fun or positive that will happen later in the day.

Distraction is one of the most helpful coping techniques for parents dealing with a nasty meltdown. Say, “I know you’re upset now, and I’m actually upset now, too, but in the back of my head I am also thinking we’ll be better later when we’re sitting on the couch and watching a movie with some popcorn [or insert something else positive that you can be doing later with your child].” Then get back to the point. “Anyhow, we can talk more about this later, but this is what I want you to do: I want you to go back and [insert what you want them to do]. If you can do that, I am not going to give you a consequence for screaming and acting up just now. This is your choice. Can you get back to normal now?” In most situations, the child will be ready to get back to what they were doing because they’ve had a chance to vent their frustration; they’ve been reminded that they have something to look forward to later in the day; and they have been told they won’t be punished if they make the good choice to control their mood and behavior.

Wisdom to remember: The goal for parents isn’t to prevent any meltdowns from ever happening. Instead, the goal is to prevent a meltdown from getting out of control. If you follow these simple steps, you can save yourself and your child an awful lot of stress and anxiety.

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Dr. Seth Meyers

Dr. Seth Meyers is a licensed clinical psychologist and author in Los Angeles, California. He specializes in parenting and relationships, and he is trained in multiple evidence-based parenting interventions. Dr. Seth earned his B.A. in psychology from Vassar College and earned his Psy.D. in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. He appears regularly on television programs, including Good Morning America, 20/20, ABC News, The Doctors, Nancy Grace, Dr. Drew and others. Dr. Seth is the author of Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.