Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Other Intense Outbursts: My #1 Secret for Staying Calm

How do we stay unruffled when our children are anything but? It’s never easy, but in this episode Janet shares the personal mindset that has helped her most, and gets SO much easier with practice. She also shares a success story from a parent who is walking through her own fears to be the parent her daughter needs.

Transcript of “Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Other Intense Outbursts: My #1 Secret for Staying Calm”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

This podcast is called Unruffled, and you’ve heard me share many different perspectives on how to be an unruffled parent, how to stay calm in all different situations. But I haven’t really zeroed in and talked just about my own personal favorite mindset. The secret I’ve used for myself to be able to manage the incredibly uncomfortable, challenging task of facing my children’s intense emotions.

Before I ended up sharing this little secret, back in 2010 I think it was, on my website, and it’s also in my No Bad Kids book, I was worried it was too silly. It felt embarrassing, and that maybe I’d be laughed at. But I was wrong. I think! I mean, maybe people are still laughing behind my back about this, there’s a good chance of that. But I’ve also heard how this advice has encouraged people. I guess there’s a lesson in that, that if something helps you, no matter how personal and silly it might seem, it might yet help someone else.

And that’s also why I love sharing your success stories, and I have one of those to share today. Sure, it’s validating for my efforts when my perspective helps somebody, but I don’t share success stories to toot my horn. I share them to encourage you that if a certain way of addressing or seeing behavior, a certain way of responding to it, helped that family, helped that parent, maybe I could brave that too and it would help me. It gives us more permission, it gives us more inspiration. Oh, people are really doing some of these things that seem scary and hard and it’s working for them.

I’m a fan of Dr. Susan David’s work in her book Emotional Agility. And this is one of my favorite quotes from her: “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. Walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you.” And that relates to the little secret I’m going to share about.

Alright, so cough it up already! My silly secret is imagery. And again, if you’ve read or listened to my book, you’ve heard me speak of this. It’s my superhero suit. I imagine myself putting on a superhero suit, with a cape, the whole business. And it has a shield that covers my chest and it allows for all the intensity, the frustration, the anger, rage, or dysregulation that my child has to kind of bounce off of me. It deflects it, so all of that emotion doesn’t get into my heart. I’m safe. I can be in hero mode.

Slipping into this suit also reminds me, and this is from my book, that this is a V.I.P.M., a Very Important Parenting Moment. Releasing these feelings is so good for my child. This explosion will clear the air and lift my child’s spirits. Staying present and calm, sticking with whatever limits I’ve set and being a safe channel for these emotions is the very best thing I could ever do.

Here are some of the superhuman parenting powers my suit provides. You could see these kind of as affirmations. They have been for me.

  • I understand that difficult behavior is a request for help — the best my child can do in that particular moment.
  • I remember to acknowledge my child’s feelings and point of view. The importance of this can’t be overemphasized.
  • I have the confidence to set and hold limits early, before I get annoyed or resentful. And I do so calmly, directly, honestly, non-punitively.
  • I know that my words are often not enough. I’ll likely need to follow through by intervening to help my child stop the behavior.
  • I’m not afraid of what others think when I need to pick up and carry my crying, screaming child out of a problematic situation, because my child comes first.
  • I have the courage to allow feelings to run their course without trying to calm or rush or fix, shush, or talk my child out of them. I might say, “You have some very strong feelings about that,” rather than yelling, “Enough!”
  • I move on without resentment once my child’s storm has passed. Rather than feeling angry, guilty, or dejected for the rest of the day, I hold my head high and congratulate myself for being an awesome, heroic parent.

And just to touch on that point about “I’m not afraid of what others think when I need to pick up and carry my crying, screaming child out of a problematic situation”—it did take a couple of times of this happening before I could really proceed with confidence. With those blinders on that are so helpful to us sometimes as parents when we’ve got a lot of input from disagreeing sources or the public or we’re embarrassed, all of that getting in our way. These blinders can help. And we can get those when we practice this, it takes practice. But after a few times or even the first time to a great extent, I did feel that. I started to feel like instead of, Oh gosh, I’m so ashamed I have to do this and my child and what’s the matter with them? Because I knew it wasn’t that my child was being a bad person there. I knew, and I would soon realize, what had caused this. Often it was tiredness, hunger, but mostly tiredness actually, in most of my cases. And kids just can’t show us that so easily, when they’re very young especially.

I began to feel like, I’m actually a model right here. I’m a model for all these people watching, whoever they are, of being a brave parent. Of, as Susan David says, fear walking. I’m walking through it. And it was like I would open up this channel for myself to be in it and to own my benevolent power at that point. And people may have snickered or thought terrible things about me and my children, I don’t know. But I know that it felt right, and that’s all I needed and that’s all my child needed, was to feel the positiveness of this. I mean, I wasn’t smiling and laughing and enjoying it, but I was okay and I was centered and I was doing the right thing. And that always proved true.

So when parents talk to me about what everyone else is thinking on the playground or wherever they are, the relatives, I encourage them to believe in themselves as the hero in those moments. Because they really are. And the more we believe it, the more others will tend to see that kind of glow around us, Wow. That’s not being permissive, it’s not letting our child unravel and continue the behavior with people or hurt someone else or make a scene. Instead, we’re rescuing them from that.

One of the toughest aspects of the job of superhero is that our kids are usually showing us that they don’t want us to be doing what we’re doing. And it’s easy to take this as that they’re mad at us and they’re even madder that we’re intervening. It’s like we’re trying to save someone who really doesn’t want to be saved and that makes it so much harder, right? To have conviction. Many months ago I did an episode around that. I called it When Our Kids Reject Us (A Step-by-Step Response). And I offered the steps and how they applied to the issues that parents shared with me in three different letters. So here are those steps again, but I’m just going to be paraphrasing them.

  1. Be prepared, do the homework. Working on our perspective, that’s the homework. How are we perceiving our child’s behavior? Because that’s going to direct our actions and decide our feelings. If we see a hurting child, it brings up totally different feelings in us than when we see what really is a mask on the outside, that seems really mean and ugly and hurtful. And then another part of being prepared and doing the homework is that if this is repeated behavior, we know that something’s up. We know maybe not exactly what’s happening, but that our child is expressing something that needs to be expressed, that they need to express. And they’re not quite getting what they need around that, not quite getting the response that they’re looking for, unconsciously. So that’s all part of the first point, being prepared, doing the homework.
  2. In the moment, block the physical behavior as best and as confidently as you can. And confidently means we’re not overdoing it, we’re just blocking as needed. We’re kind of trying to make it look easy if we can. And that comes from being ready for it, because we’ve done the homework. And blocking early. I mean sometimes it’s going to happen anyway, but we’re not waiting until after something happens and then it happens again. We’re ready that next time or ideally, we’re ready before the first time, because we see it coming.
  3. If there’s a chance to have eye contact during these explosions, try to be open, soft-eyed, as empathetic as possible. Breathe. Maybe nodding your head ever so slightly. I know this is hard, but it comes from seeing the hurt behind the mean behavior and connecting with that.
  4. If there’s a break in their shouting or their screaming, just reflect back what your child is saying. We’re just staying in the moment, acknowledging it right there as it comes. “It feels to you like I’m the meanest person ever.” “You didn’t want me to be the one to pick you up, you wanted daddy.” Or, “You hate me so much right now,” if that’s what they’re saying. “Those are angry words.”
  5. Show more than tell. Not talking a lot about, “I can’t let you do this behavior,” especially if it’s repeated behavior. That part goes without saying. We just want to show, without tell, that we’re going to stop them, we’re going to block them, that we can’t let them do the behavior. And for the most part, children already know that this is unwanted, wrong behavior.
  6. Let it go. After it’s done, don’t rehash, unless it’s to make some kind of helpful, non-judgmental plan together about how we could do this differently. And the non-judgmental part of that is key. So it’s not, “Well, what are you going to do next time?” It’s really, “This keeps happening. Is there anything I can do? What can we do to make this easier?” That kind of openness makes our child feel safe. And sometimes even just that interaction, that we’re open, we’re not judging them, and we want to help. Sometimes that’s enough that we don’t actually have to have a plan, but just the fact that we’re open to that can be enough for them to feel better and not do that behavior, whatever it is.

Here’s one of the particular notes that I responded to, which I’ve edited. This is the parent that just this week gave me an update. She says:

Dear Janet,

I feel my daughter is a well-adjusted, wonderfully expressive kid who’s securely attached to her parents. However, five weeks ago, my mother, whom my daughter adores, was in the hospital with emergency surgery. Although my mom had cancer, this surgery came out of left field and for three weeks I was at the hospital every day. I still made sure to spend at least three hours with my daughter daily in a present, attuned way. Still, she knew something was wrong with grandma. She kept saying, “Mommy, hospital, care, grandma.” And I told her where I was going. Plus, she felt her schedule change when I wasn’t there as much.

Then my husband took her away to see her other grandparents for three nights. She’s never been away before and her sleep completely unraveled. She could only fall asleep by falling asleep right on daddy. She’d also never been away from mommy that long.

Then the very next day they returned, my mother died. That was two weeks ago. This came out of left field for my daughter. I never even got to the part where I planned to slowly tell her grandma was really ill. So it’s a shock for all.

Since then, our daughter’s refused to let me put her down to sleep at night. She frequently pushes me away, says, “Go away, Mommy.” This has blossomed into not even letting me pick her up when she’s finished napping or sleeping, demanding daddy all the time and shrieking and tantruming whenever daddy isn’t there. Whereas we used to cuddle every afternoon after her nap, now she sobs hysterically and asks me to leave her alone. I do. I do my very, very best to be nonchalant, but in a loving way, letting her know I’m here for her. Eventually she gets up and wants to play, but seems only to feel truly okay when daddy returns.

She’s never had tantrums before, she’s never preferred daddy before or pushed me away or said, “Go away!” I’ve put her down almost every night of her life. It seems that in some way she blames me for losing her grandma or associates me with the bad feeling she has about it.

She talks about grandma a lot, is very upset about this weird death thing. I’ve been straightforward about explaining that grandma died and her body stopped working and I’m so sorry and we will miss her and be sad and mad, but also still feel her love in our hearts and all of that. We talk about it every day, but only when she brings it up. I follow her lead. I allow her to see me cry or be sad about grandma, but I do shield her from seeing me sob hysterically, things I think would be burdensome to a child. I have tried to really role model a healthy approach to grieving.

And although it’s very painful to be constantly pushed away from my daughter at the exact moment I lost my mother, I do my absolute best to be nonchalant in the sweet way you always role model. Like, Sure, go with daddy. I admit she has probably picked up on my hurt here or there, but I really try not to burden her with that or manipulate her in any way. I understand she’s going through something and I don’t blame her for any of this, obviously. But I really don’t know what to do to make it better for her or to be included in her sphere of affection and safety again.

I responded: First of all, I want to say I’m so sorry for this parent’s loss. As children are, her daughter seems she’s especially tuned in to how her mother is feeling. That can be almost stronger for a child than the feelings they have about the relationship because though they feel the loss, they don’t really yet understand the implications. They don’t have that frame of reference. And so the more that we can be plain and simple and truthful, the easier it is for kids to process it. This parent is showing wonderful empathy and instinct for how she’s caring for her daughter.

A couple of things stood out to me. First is that this parent concludes: “It seems in some way she blames me for losing her grandma or associates me with the bad feeling she has about it.” That part doesn’t ring true to me. To me it feels like this is more about that she senses there’s a lot going on inside her mother, but her mother isn’t quite expressing that to her in the moment. And children, they pick up on this, this whole devastation that’s going on inside this mother. And that can be what’s making them uncomfortable around that person. It’s that the mother’s sitting on a lot of feelings that she’s not sharing and that’s disconcerting.

When she is with her mother, she’s doing this really, really healthy thing that children do so beautifully, which is that they reflect back to us our insides. They’ll put the feelings they’re picking up from us on the outside. So when she’s saying, no, no, no! and has these tantrums and refuses to be with her mother, I would stand tall and face that if you can. I mean, this mother’s going through her own thing. And number one, she obviously needs to take care of herself. She’s being so gracious about her daughter and trying to protect her from these feelings. But maybe the simmering inside of such strong feelings in the mother is uncomfortable for the child.

The way to help her through that is to actually stand by her when she’s pushing you away. And doing those steps that I mentioned. Blocking the physical behavior. If there’s eye contact, being open, soft-eyed, empathetic. If there’s a break in the shouting or the tantrum, just reflect back what she’s saying, just what you know for sure. “You want me to go, you just want daddy, you’re not comfortable with me.” Letting it be okay for her to share that and not shying away from it. I was flattered that this parent said that I role model nonchalant. The way I see it, though, is not so much nonchalant, like I’m pretending I don’t care when I actually do, but as something that I can believe, which is that I’m unthreatened. And then we could say, Ouch, you don’t want to be with me. But you know what? I can hear that. You can tell me that. I’m still going to be there for you.

And then I said, now if it gets too much for this parent, yes of course, let daddy do it. But remember: every time we do that, we’re accommodating. We’re agreeing with our child that, Yeah, you need to be with daddy now and not me. And she’s still going to be expressing these feelings to you in this seemingly mean, awful, rejecting way. That’s going to happen for a little while until she processes it through.

I love how this parent said she’s trying to show her daughter a healthy grieving process, but wow, she’s putting a lot of responsibility on herself. Because a truly healthy grieving process is exactly your unique human grieving process. In other words, there isn’t a perfectly healthy grieving process, so we don’t need to try to make it smooth or right or hit all the right notes. Because each person has a different grieving process with each type of grief that they’re experiencing. And so the healthiest grieving process is just to allow that, to express it, to share it. And I said, hopefully this parent is sharing it with people besides her daughter.

But even with her daughter, the key here is just to say in the moment when it comes up, “I miss my mom so much right now, this makes me want my mommy.” Opening that up a little bit more, because I don’t believe this parent will let herself lose control and get hysterical and scare her daughter that way. And it’s safe for her to open up some space to show her pain so it’s not this mysterious, uncomfortable thing for her daughter. So we’re letting her in, in the moment, just when the feelings come up. “Ugh, I just got a pang of how much I miss my mom” while I’m doing this random thing. That’s how our grief often comes. Some random thing happens that triggers us. So it’s safe to share that. In fact, it’ll bring you much closer to each other, as being honest about feelings does. Always.

Just this week, this parent got back to me, many months later:

Hi, Janet-

I’ve wanted to write you back since you responded to my letter in your show so long ago. I think I kept waiting for a time I could report feeling like a healthy, happy human again. In fact, eight months after losing my mom, the grief is still very intense and I still feel I’m on an alien planet. Losing my mom was more life-changing to me than becoming one. Thankfully, it does not stop me from enjoying my daughter, it only adds a sadness that my mom is missing this incredible kid. Or maybe she isn’t, who knows?

All that said, I never got a chance to tell you that your advice to me, while terrifying, completely worked. You told me to stay the course when my daughter screamed in my arms demanding her father and to show her that I was not going anywhere. I was genuinely scared to try this out, but I did so, the very night I heard your podcast.

The first night she cried for 15 minutes straight, constantly tried to wiggle out of my arms. It was absolutely awful. And then she stopped and we went back to our old ritual. When she fell asleep, I felt like Marlon Brando at the end of On The Waterfront, completely brutalized but triumphant. The next night she cried for about five minutes and then just stopped and we were fine. The third night she started to cry for one second, seemed to remember all was good now, and gave me no pushback whatsoever, ever again. It was actually amazing to see something work so incredibly well so fast. So thank you so, so much, forever.

Lately, my daughter, who is now two years and seven months, is definitely sliding into frequent meltdown mode, being defiant at every turn, and saying no to everything, usually quite cheerfully. “No, I think I will not put on a new diapie!” and instantly going apoplectic when she doesn’t get her way. I feel like I’ve spent almost three years preparing for this moment by listening to your podcast. I set the boundary while remaining totally sympathetic to her feelings. There are some things I can’t physically force, such as making her blow her nose, so I let those go. And sometimes I do just let things go because I’m tired, like I’ll let her run around naked for too long and then she pees on the floor. But on the whole, I feel like your counsel has given me such a concrete goal to constantly practice.

In your message to me in the podcast, you made the distinction between being nonchalant versus unthreatened. This difference is really powerful. Deep down, I admit I am kind of threatened by the intensity of toddler emotion. My first thought is always, Well gosh, if it means this much to you, I relent. Or I fear I don’t truly have the authority. But it is downright palpable the way my daughter ultimately relaxes against a boundary. As an anxious type, it really helps to remind myself that this is a way of protecting her from the anxiety of always getting her way.

Thank you for everything.

And I wrote back to this mom:

I’m thrilled to hear that you are walking through the terror (It’s real, I know!) of facing your daughter’s intense emotions. Laud yourself for showing such courage. I hope you’ll savor these moments when you succeed and savor the experiences of your daughter, as you say, “ultimately relaxing against a boundary.” Replay those moments to bolster yourself whenever you need to be in hero mode for her and know, without question, you can do this.

I’m sorry to hear you’re still suffering in regard to your mom. I believe that somewhere, somehow she’s proudly witnessing the developments in her incredible granddaughter and in you.

And here’s what I wrote at the end of my chapter on being a superhero:

Occasionally (though it’s pretty rare) my superhero perspective even allows me to recognize the romance in these moments. I’m able to time travel at hyper-speed into the future, look back and realize that this was prime time together. It didn’t look pretty, but we were close. I’ll remember how hard it was to love my child when she was at her very worst and feel super proud that I did it anyway.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

And by the way, you may have noticed that my audiobooks are not available at the moment and the paperbacks of both books, No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care, are going to be re-released at the end of April. I believe you can get them in Kindle still and you can buy some used copies that Amazon is selling. But the reason for this is a positive one. For years, those have been self-published books and Random House is now taking over the publishing of them. And they’re also publishing my upcoming book, which you’re going to hear a lot more about as it gets closer! So, this is obviously thrilling for me and I’m sorry for the inconvenience of not being able to get the paperbacks right now, but the audiobooks should be back on any day now. I just wanted to give you that update, and thank you again for all your kind support.

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