Should you punish tantrums and emotional outbursts in kids? Find out how research says to effectively work through meltdowns, crying, and tantrums. Find out how to coach children through meltdowns without being permissive.
Get a printable cheat sheet with tips for managing meltdowns at the bottom of this post.
With two young kids fifteen months apart, some days it feels like I’m walking through an emotional minefield.
For example, in the food court at the mall, my strong-willed daughter was crestfallen it because her bagel didn’t have enough cream cheese.
Then, my sensitive son had a meltdown in the parking lot of the grocery store because I undid his car seat when he wanted to himself. He never told me he wanted to do it.
I was tired and two back-to-back meltdowns coupled with the perceived scrutiny of being in public felt like too much to deal with. In moments like these, I can feel tempted to tell my daughter her reaction is too much or force my son out of the car. I feel like losing it.
Related reading: Positive Parenting Strategies for Difficult Toddler Behaviour
Of course, I don’t want to encourage meltdowns.
In those moments when I need to get the grocery shopping done or all eyes are on me, it can feel especially tempting to punish tantrums and emotional outbursts.
I mean I don’t want to raise a child who will turn up food because there isn’t the exact bread-to-cheese ratio she wanted.
Even if I’m in the privacy of my home away from the food court, it can be painstaking to get through my son throwing his shoes because his shoes feel ‘funny.’ The last thing I want is to reinforce this behaviour.
Who wants a child who thinks it’s okay to scream when his toast is cut incorrectly or a daughter who throws a doll that isn’t easy to dress?
The truth is, no one does.
Giving in to tantrums can be permissive. And permissive parenting can have substantial consequences for children.
Permissive parents are parents tend to avoid disciplining their children in the interest of avoiding confrontation and more tantrums in the short term. Unfortunately in the long term, this style of parenting leads to children who have poorer self-discipline and poor emotional regulation.
Children from these families tend to be more rebellious and defiant, have lower persistence and more antisocial behaviours when compared to their peers.
Though it may seem that the best way to avoid permissiveness is to punish, that is not the case.
So in the interest of avoiding permissiveness, parents may feel their own recourse is to punish them. However, research suggests otherwise.
Research shows that how we react to our children’s emotional outbursts or challenging behaviour predicts how well they will cope with these same emotions in the future.
Research on punishing tantrums has found that:
- When we encourage children to control emotions, they become more distressed when faced with negative emotions. For example, saying “Stop crying,” or “Get over it” does more damage than good. Find more on this study here.
- If we repeatedly minimize our children’s emotions, they become less likely to be self-aware. Also, they exhibit more outward signs of anger. Their outbursts can get worse. Children who have the permission to express emotion tend to be more socially aware and less angry. Read more here.
- Children who experience punishment for their negative emotions tend to be more reactive. See the study here.
- Finally, punishment as a strategy in and of itself has been proven to be ineffective. As illustrated in the research findings above, punishment, in general, fails to teach moral reasoning or better conduct.
- Children, whose parents calmly coached them through their anger, have less intense meltdowns. These children also exhibited less anger overall. Read more from this source here.
- Mothers who address their children’s negative emotions in calm and thoughtful ways foster better “emotional balance” in their children. Find the source here.
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So How Do We Properly Parent Our Children When They Have Tantrums and Meltdowns?
Obviously, it is not an option to let our children’s tantrums go unaddressed. And, punishment doesn’t work the way we want it to. So what is the answer?
Based on the research referenced above, here is what to do:
- Remain calm. This can be especially challenging, especially when we feel rushed, pushed to our limits, or out of resources. However, parents who remain calm have the greatest success when mediating tantrums.
- Acknowledge their feelings. For example, say, “You’re upset. That’s hard.” This lets them feel heard. As a result, children feel empowered to move on because you haven’t dismissed or minimized their feelings. Using the bagel example, I tell my child it’s okay to be frustrated. It’s hard not getting exactly what she wants. At the same time, she can’t shove the bagel away.
- Take a few deep breaths together. In the case of my son throwing his shoes that feel funny, I can say, “Let’s take some deep breaths.”
- When calm, redirect their behaviour. Examples may be,
- Coach them. Again, with the bagel example, this would be something along the lines of, “Do you want more cream cheese? All you need to say is, ‘More cream cheese please?'” Then wait for them to comply. If their outburst is more about raw emotion than an actual event, there are wonderful strategies for calming a child that can be found here.
Related reading: The Whole Brain Child – The neuropsychology behind why addressing the child’s feelings first, then disciplining is crucial.
- If children are struggling to regulate, a time-in or a timeout can help greatly. When my children can’t compose themselves and we are able to, I take whoever is struggling to his/ her room or to the side of the interaction. I stay with my daughter. My son needs space and so I tell him I’m available when he needs me. Wait until they are calm enough to listen to your words. In some situations or with some kids, that might be right away. For others, this could be minutes upon minutes. All you can do is wait.
- Hug it out. Children feel more connected to us and more secure when they are hugged in times of intense emotion.
Research on responsive parenting shows this approach is the most powerful way for children to better regulate their emotions in the short term and show more appropriate responses in the long term.
Learning to deal with big emotions is an undertaking. With three kids under the age of six, I’m likely to face a few more seatbelt debacles and food court meltdowns. By coaching rather than punishing their emotions, my children are learning to express themselves more appropriately and manage their feelings better. Remember to download your printable with more tips on coaching kids through their meltdowns.
Additional reading you may find useful.