Picture: Getty Images

In the face of a full-blown toddler meltdown, the last thing parents should do is yell, punish or threaten. Losing your cool will only raise anxiety levels and make things worse.

"Tantrums are exhausting," writes a young mum on a social networking site. "I know," replies another. "That's why I stopped having them."

The amusing strategy suggested by the older, more experienced mother is actually a very good solution when confronted by a screaming, demanding toddler, say child behaviour experts.

"The best advice we can give parents is to just breathe," Ngala co-ordinator of education Julie Holschier said. "All children will have tantrums. It's a normal part of child development.

"By the time they are 12 months old, most children understand around 90 per cent of what parents are saying to them, but they don't have the language skills to express what is happening.

"A child gets overwhelmed with the world sometimes, and tantrums are an expression of that fear and anxiety. When that happens, parents need to just breathe and stay calm."

While tantrums were a natural part of raising toddlers, parents should remember they were not entirely powerless. Tactics employed before and after tantrums occurred could minimise their overall impact, said Ngala practice consultant educator Wendy Muller.

"As language skills increase, generally tantrums will decrease," Ms Muller said. "Toddlers have not yet learned to regulate their emotions, so they can feel out of control very quickly and easily.

"Children learn to regulate themselves through the consistent care given by their parents, so if a parent hyperventilates while a child is having a tantrum, the child feels even more out of control. He or she needs the parent to stay calm.

"The first thing parents need to ask themselves is 'What's really going on here?'

After the child has calmed down, parents can consider whether they are spending enough time with their child. They should try to catch the child doing something good and praise them.

"Parents should also consider if the child is sleep- deprived, hungry or over- stimulated.

"It's also a good idea to limit the number of choices you give a toddler because too many options can be overwhelming."

Ms Muller said parents would have more success in communicating with a child when he or she had settled down.

"Try to remember that tantrums do expire, and when they do, that's the time to talk to your child about what happened. It's important to put some words to the feelings and let your child know you support them. Develop a narrative around how the situation can be better dealt with next time."

The last thing parents should do is to engage in an argument or screaming match, or attempt to punish an upset child - simply using a calm tone of voice and removing the child from the situation was a more effective strategy than raising the levels of distress for both child and parent.

Consistency of message and outlining consequences for when a tantrum occurred were critical ways to avoid them happening regularly, Ms Muller said.

"Before going out with your child, it's important to let them know what the rules are, and if those lines are crossed, what the consequences will be," she said. "It's very important to follow through if the child does break the rules. If there is no consequence then the offending behaviour will continue."

Ms Muller said regardless of where tantrums occurred, parents should follow through with their strategy, stay calm and resist altering their plan in the face of feeling judged by others.

Five ways to deal with tantrums:
RULE 1: Keep calm and breathe
While parents have no control over their child mid-tantrum, how a parent reacts can determine whether the situation is resolved quickly or becomes a two-way meltdown.

"Knowing your child and knowing what their triggers are can go a long way towards avoiding tantrums," said specialist clinical psychologist with the State Child Development Centre Jane Doyle.

"Sometimes tantrums can appear to occur suddenly, and once the child is in the middle of one, the number one rule for parents is to get themselves under control. Often, depending on where it occurs, parents don't always have the opportunity to walk away and calm themselves down."

RULE 2: Communication is key
Setting the ground rules for children is a very effective way of minimising the likelihood of a tantrum, especially during outings and plays dates, said Ngala co-ordinator of education Julie Holschier.

"Before another child comes over or when meeting others for lunch, parents can talk to their children about playing nicely together and sharing," she said. "Parents can also ask their child to set aside their favourite toys that could cause conflict and choose the toys they are comfortable sharing with the other child or children. They should also talk about what will happen if the rules are not followed."

Often children wanted their parents to follow through on what they were doing and saying. Communication between parents on setting the ground rules was very important. "It's never helpful to punish or smack a child during a tantrum. Afterwards parents can talk to their child together calmly about ways to avoid it happening again in the future."

RULE 3: Be consistent and plan ahead
"Using common sense in these situations really is key," Ms Doyle said. "When you are out shopping, engage them, don't stop and chat for too long and try to avoid long queues. Plan ahead with snacks or books to keep them busy and do sensible things like getting the child to go to the toilet before you leave.

Ms Doyle said being sensitive and available to your child would minimise the feelings of frustration and loss of control that triggered tantrums.

Having routines and practising predictable parenting were two sound strategies in heading off tantrums, Ngala practice consultant educator Wendy Muller said.

"Children need natural rhythms in their lives," she said.

"They need a set routine with baths, meals and sleep times. Children will often tantrum if they are tired, hungry or feeling uncomfortable.

"Parents also need to manage transitions wisely. If I was enjoying an activity as an adult and someone came along and told me to pack away, I would be upset too."

RULE 4: Nurture social and emotional development
Often children had tantrums because they were vying for a parent's time and attention, were frustrated or felt frightened, said Ngala's Wendy Muller.

Parents who were able identify with their children the reasons behind a tantrum stood a much better chance of managing them effectively in the future, she said.

RULE 5: Show them unconditional love
All children needed to feel loved, Ms Holschier said, particularly when they were feeling out of control.

"If a child is lying on his tummy, thumping the ground and screaming, then sometimes it helps for a parent to sit next to them and be empathetic.

"Unconditional love is very important for a child to have, especially when emotions are escalating and children feel out of control."

The five don'ts:
·Don't ask a child who is in a tantrum to explain why they are behaving that way - sometimes they can't find the words because they are so upset or they simply don't know why.

·Don't raise your voice while a child is angry, crying or generally upset - it raises everyone's anxiety levels.

·Don't call the child names or belittle him or her - it makes them feel more vulnerable.

·Don't try to reason with a child younger than 22 months - they don't have the reasoning skills.

Distracting them with another activity is the best way to stop a tantrum.

·Don't acknowledge the "bad" behaviour - focus on positive and preventative parenting.

The West Australian

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