QUESTION: My daughter is nearly eight years old and has frequent meltdowns and hysterical outbursts that are very hard to manage.
Last week when under pressure she threw a hissy-fit and refused point blank to get into the car to go to school. I ended up dragging her into the car which meant she kicked and hit me on the way.
I got her to school but I felt terrible afterwards. I don’t think she is having any problems at school as the teacher says she is doing fine, and has a few friends. The teacher does not seem to see any of the behaviour I see. What can I do?
She seems to pick the worst time to have her meltdowns, such as in the mornings when I am under pressure to drop her to school and to get to work.
ANSWER: Dealing with behaviour problems such as tantrums and meltdowns are among the most stressful things you have to cope with as a parent. Such problems can be more challenging as children get older when the tantrums can be longer and more wearing and can be more damaging to the parent-child relationship.
Usually, recurring tantrums are part of a pattern of behaviour that both parent and child are caught up in. The parent reacts to a child’s provocation, which in turn causes first the child and then the parent to escalate, resulting in an unhappy outcome for both.
The first step in overcoming tantrums is to try and break these patterns and find calmer and more positive ways to respond.
Have a clear plan of action for each meltdown
Think through a clear plan of action that allows you to get through different “meltdown” situations in a calm way that does not escalate or make things worse. Different strategies work at different times.
For example, it can be helpful to be empathic to your daughter – “Listen, I know you are upset, but once we get going you will feel better” – or to distract her – “Let’s get into the car and we can listen to your music”.
You also need to think through what you will do if your daughter point-blank refuses to behave, for example to get into the car in the morning. In these situations, you need to think of a consequence that you can employ, for example that your daughter loses equivalent TV time for the number of minutes she is late.
When she throws a tantrum you simply pull back for a few moments and remind her of this: “Come on, let’s go now; if you are late you will only lose TV time.”
The challenge of the morning routine
The big challenge with a child delaying or refusing to go to school is that the consequence (the child being late) affects the parent more than the child as the parent is either under pressure to get to work or is more worried than the child about missing school time.
To overcome this you have to organise things so that the child experiences the consequence and you don’t: which means you can remain calm and let your child learn from the misbehaviour.
One parent I worked with organised things with her boss so that she could occasionally be late to work so she had time to deal with things as needed. She agreed with the teacher that the child would lose part of her yard time if she was late. This allowed the parent to simply remind the child “the longer you delay, the more yard time you will miss” and then to calmly wait for the child.
Another parent who could not change her work time agreed that she would always leave the house at the same time and without her daughter if she was not ready. She arranged that a family friend would take her to school later and that there would be a consequence both in school (less computer time) and at home ( less TV time) for being late.
In both instances, the parents organised things so that the child experienced the consequence for being late, rather than them as parents. This took the pressure off them and allowed them to be calmer, at least on the surface.
Try to prevent problems
Try to think of some ways to take the pressure off the morning routine and to teach your child the benefits of keeping the routine. For many children, establishing a clear predicable routine that gives them plenty of time can make a big difference. Sit down and plan a good routine for the morning that can be roughly the same each day.
For example, the routine might be:
a) getting up and dressed
b) breakfast and a chat
c) prepare bags
d) go out the door to the car
e) listen to favourite music in car.
The key to making a routine work is to include rewarding and relaxing steps that occur after harder ones.
For example, once she is dressed your daughter can have breakfast and a chat and once in the car you turn on her favourite music. To get a routine started, it can be helpful to do up a chart outlining all the steps with your daughter and the rest of the children and that may have a daily reward of points which can be redeemed for a nice family reward at the end of the week, for example a day-trip or a movie.
In addition, it is very important to make sure there are daily times of enjoyment and play with your daughter. Recurrent behaviour problems can be wearing and deplete a relationship which in turn makes the problems more likely to happen.
Take time to build and enjoy your relationship with your daughter; this in turn will give you the energy and motivation to manage the challenging behaviours when they happen.
Seek further support as needed
If problems persist, do seek further support either by making contact with a child mental health professional or by attending a behaviour-management parenting course.
Overcoming behavioural problems that are recurrent patterns takes time and patience and a little bit of support can make all the difference.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.