How to Handle the Threenager Meltdown

Stephanie Specht's picture
By Stephanie Specht on March 22, 2018

It has happened to every parent at least once (most likely several times). The threenager meltdown!

It happened to me just last weekend. My husband and I took our three-year-old to the book store. He loves to play with the train in the children’s area!

He played happily for about an hour, but things went south real quick when I told him it was time to go.

I was met with a high-pitched scream of “No!” followed by him picking up the wooden crane on the table and throwing it.

Parents, you know what came next: The meltdown in the middle of the crowded store.

Great. What now? I try several different things ranging from:

  • Getting down on his level and softly but firmly telling him this is unacceptable
  • Bribery
  • Sitting next to him on the floor and just waiting it out
  • Getting up and pretending to leave

Finally, after what seemed like forever, but in reality was probably all of about five minutes, I got him to walk out with me.

He staged a brief coup as we got to the door, so I just picked him up and made a dash for my car. 

As I buckled him into his car seat, I thought to myself, “Did I do anything right in there?”

This was the exact question I posed to Tara Mitchell, Ph.D., a parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) specialist in the Pediatric Behavioral Health department at Carilion Children's.

Turns out, what I did wasn’t all bad, but there was room for improvement.

Don’t Reinforce Negative Behavior

Dr. Mitchell noted that it can be easy for parents to get embarrassed, especially in public places, when their child has a meltdown, but you have to stay firm and most importantly, be consistent.

“It can be tempting to say ‘Fine, if you want the candy bar, have the candy bar,’ in hopes of putting an end to the meltdown, but from my perspective that is the worst thing to do because you just reinforced that behavior,” explained Dr. Mitchell.

Plus, she added that it can be confusing for the child because sometimes they get away with this behavior and sometimes they don’t.

Always Follow Through

When the meltdown does strike, Dr. Mitchell says to get down on your child’s level, use calm but firm words (don’t yell or escalate the situation) and do not set a consequence that you can’t follow through on.

For instance, in my situation at the bookstore, I could have calmly but firmly said to my son, “If this continues, we are going to leave the store and you are not getting the books you picked out.”

The important part is to follow through on the consequence that you set. In this instance, if my son’s behavior did not improve, going back and getting the books anyway would be a mistake.

Dr. Mitchell also encourages parents to make sure that they set realistic consequences.

“A parent might say, ‘You are not leaving this table until you have a happy plate, even if you have to sit here all night’,” she said. “Is a parent really going to do that? Probably not, so I would encourage them to think of something else.”

It is also important to not get caught up in a rewards systems that is focused on buying things for your child.

“I am a huge proponent of setting natural consequences and natural rewards,” she said. “I try to encourage parents to use a reinforcer such as an activity or something fun because it can be a slippery slope if you always offer to buy things as a reward for good behavior.” 

Remove Them From the Situation

If the above approaches do not work, Dr. Mitchell noted that is time to remove them from the situation. However, how you remove them is just as important.

“If you are carrying your child out of the store for misbehavior, I tell parents to make sure that they don’t use a loving hold,” Dr. Mitchell explained. “You want to scoop them up and have them facing out, so you are not holding them in a way that is coddling them and reinforcing that behavior.”

Once you get to the car, then it is time to wait and give your child a chance to settle down.

After your child has calmed down, you can take some time to discuss what happened, but be sure to remain calm and use simple language.

Don’t try to drive while your child is having a tantrum as it can be distracting and dangerous for both of you.  

If you are driving and the meltdown starts, pull over and say, “When you calm down, we will keep driving.”

Use “When Then, If Then” Statements

And statements like the one above should become your friend.

“I love ‘when then and if then’ statements,” said Dr. Mitchell. “For example, if your child refuses to wear their coat outside, say, ‘When you get your coat on we can go outside’.”

This one will take a little bit of patience on your part, but essentially, you are putting the choice to behave back on your child.

Redirect Your Child

Another great tactic for little ones is redirection.

“Young children’s attention spans are very short so you can use that to your advantage,” said Dr. Mitchell.

For example, at the book store during my son’s tantrum, I could have pulled out a book and said, “Wow, I found a book on spaceships,” and he might think “Oh, what are you looking at?” and forget about what he was initially upset about.

Can Meltdowns be Avoided?

My next question to Dr. Mitchell: Can meltdowns be avoided?

In short, no.

“You have to brace yourself that kids are going to throw tantrums,” Dr. Mitchell explained. “It is a completely normal part of growing up and learning to push those limits.”

However, you can do some things to help avoid them and help your child learn from those situations.

Establish Expectations

For example, according to Dr. Mitchell, before I even entered the store with my son, I should have set him up for good behavior by laying out a few ground rules.

For example, say, “We are getting ready to go into the book store. The rules are that you have to use your inside voice and use your walking feet.”

“If you run or use an outdoor voice, then we have to leave the store. But if you are good and follow the rules then we can stay and look at books and I will buy you one book.”

Show Some Mutual Respect

I should have also given my son some transition time.

“Whatever the child is engaging in is important to them,” said Dr. Mitchell. “Whether is it trains in your situation or a child is watching their favorite show, let them know that they have 2 more minutes and then they have to leave or turn off their show.” 

By setting up that transition you give them time to digest that they will need to wrap up and get ready to leave.

In addition, there are several things that parents can do on a daily basis to not only help avoid meltdowns, but create the opportunity for good behavior on an ongoing basis.

Give Your Child Choices

For example, make sure that you are not the only one making the decisions.

“At this age they are trying to test the world and figure things out, and they want to do things themselves,” noted Dr. Mitchell.

When it is appropriate, give your child choices. Just make sure to keep it simple, so that they do not become overwhelmed.   

For example, when it is time to get dressed, let your child choose between the blue shirt or the red shirt.

“It lets them have a sense of control, but it is limited,” explained Dr. Mitchell. “They don’t get to choose whether they get dressed or not, but it gives them some control in their choice.”

Praise the Good

We also often get so focused on correcting bad behavior that we forget to praise good behavior.

“The key is let the child know that what they are doing is good, so we want to catch them being good and praise them for that good behavior,” said Dr. Mitchell.

The challenge is that kids act up and they get their parents attention. 

“From a behavioral perspective, we call that negative reinforcement,” said Dr. Mitchell. “When you fuss at them for bad behavior you might not be giving them positive feedback, you are giving them negative feedback, but you are going to reinforce the behavior because they got your attention.”

“To the child, what they are doing is working because they got your attention,” Dr. Mitchell added.

For example, if a child is playing quietly at home, a parent is essentially ignoring them because it allows them to do other things, such as fold the laundry or clean up the kitchen.

However, as soon as the child acts up, it gets the parents attention.

“In order to help the child be successful longer, the key is to give them positive attention for that good behavior,” said Dr. Mitchell.

Instead of ignoring the child for that good behavior, go out of your way to praise it.

For example, say, “Jack, thank you for playing so calmly. I love how gently you are playing with your toys. Good job!”

The same is true in the line at the grocery store if your child is patiently waiting.

Reward your child by saying, “Great job waiting your turn. I know it can be hard to stand still.”

Redo the Activity

Some behavior issues can be scary and dangerous for parents. In those situations, Dr. Mitchell recommends redoing the activity.

For example, if your little one refuses to hold your hand leaving the store and darts out into the parking lot, take the child back and do it again.

Say, “We hold hands in parking lots; we are going to do that again.”

Model Good Behavior

Of course, this one is true throughout a child’s life. You have to be a good role model. If your child sees you act appropriately, they will too.  

Overall, Dr. Mitchell noted that all kids have temper tantrums and that it is completely normal. For some kids it can be every once in a while and for others it could be five times per day.

However, if  you feel like your child’s behavior is outside the norm for their age, Dr. Mitchell recommends consulting with your pediatrician.

“Ask if your child’s behavior is within the norm, and if not, ask for a referral to go to counseling,” she said.

With her clients, Dr. Mitchell uses PCIT, or parent-child interaction therapy, an evidence-based treatment approach that helps the child and the parents.

“This type of treatment is specifically for 2- to 7-year-olds who have behavioral problems,” explained Dr. Mitchell. “I teach the parents basic play therapy skills so they can learn how to teach their kids through play. When they leave my office, they are equipped to handle situations with their child.”

If you are not quite ready to jump into counseling, there are also parenting classes that you can take. In the Roanoke area, Dr. Mitchell recommends a course called Love and Logic.

“It is a great resource for parents because they can take a class and not have to jump into counseling,” she explained.

Bottom line: Parents you are not alone; we have all been there!

Being a parent is the most rewarding and challenging things I have ever done, but I think I am ready to show my face at the book store again, and this time, I will be ready for the next meltdown!