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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.

There’s no question that children can trigger their parents when their children act out, leading to overwhelming frustration and anger. The key for parents is to make sure that there is nothing they are doing that escalates their kids’ defiant or otherwise annoying behaviors. Check out these three behaviors parents sometimes engage in which accidentally reinforces the bad behavior, and causes the kids to take the outburst to an even higher level. The last thing we want to do is make a problem worse, so watch out and avoid all of the behaviors below!

Matching your child’s negative feelings

Hands down, the worst thing a parent can do when their child is upset is to react with the same level of frustration or anger the child is showing in the first place. Picture it: Your 12-year old daughter yells that you lost an article of her clothing, and she refuses to get in the car for school until she has it. A common – but faulty – reaction for the parent is to get angry right back and say something to the effect of, “Why can’t you manage your own things? You need to find it now, or else!” While it’s understandable that the parent gets angry, showing the anger only ignites the fire further. When your child has an outburst, you must remain cool and calm above all else. Try saying this instead: “I know you’re frustrated, but getting angry with me only makes me angry. I will agree to take two minutes now and help you look for it, and if we don’t find it by then, you will have to go to school without it. I’m sorry, honey, but that is the best I can do on such short notice, and appreciate the fact that I am offering to help you.” (You want kids who aren’t bratty or entitled? Well, then, when you do something nice for them, remind them to thank you if they don’t think to thank you on their own.)

Labeling your child

When your child is having an outburst, their emotions are spiraling out of control and they simply don’t know how to calm themselves. The good news: That’s something you can help them with! But too often, parents get frustrated and label their child in an already-heated moment. I’ll share some of the ways parents label their kids which end up escalating the crisis: “You lose everything. What is wrong with you?” “Are you angry again? You’re always angry about something!” “I’m sick of your tantrums. Why can’t you just be happy?” When parents make any of these comments, they frustrate the child even more, and this is often when the tears start. Avoid using labels or generalizing too much, especially when your child is already upset.

Comparing your child to another child

Parents, please don’t ever compare your child to another child. When parents do this, it often takes the following form: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “Your sister never gives me a hard time like this. Why do you always do this to me?” “My friends tell me their kids never treat their parents this way. Why can’t you be more like them?” No child ever – in the history of the entire world – improved their behavior because their parents pointed out to them that another child was a better child. Instead, these comments make the child even angrier to the point that the parent becomes an opponent. Even though it’s perfectly normal – or even inevitable? – to compare your child to another child in your head, never say these hurtful words out loud. There is simply no better way to screw up a child’s self-esteem than to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with them.

The takeaway:
Parenting is the most challenging job in the world, especially if you have a child who is hyperactive, defiant, or overly emotional. Make sure that you avoid these behaviors above, and simultaneously build in time with friends for much-needed venting. Odds are that you probably need a break today or sometime very soon!