Christian Media: Where Truth Meets You

Understanding Your Child’s Meltdown

When your child has a meltdown or a tantrum, they are trying to communicate something, learn how to handle the meltdown.


Mariel Gutierrez: You’re listening to Faith and Family, a Christian family community that aims to provide Christian advice and promote Christian values. I’m Mariel Gutierrez. 

Parents, what do you do when your child has a tantrum? What are some ways you handle the situation? Well, Jen Polintan, a mother of two, is a toddler tantrum survivor. She did a talk on Faith Speaks, and I think all parents can relate. Listen to this:

[Audio playback of Jen’s talk on Faith Speaks]

Jen Polintan: So parents are pretty strong, right? They can pretty much take anything you throw their way. But there are a couple of words that really hurt to hear. So when my daughter, Jacie, was in the heart of her terrible twos, whenever she was reprimanded, she would say, “I want a new mommy, I want a new daddy. Give me a new family.” And this would cause a lot of grief in our home. 

But I remember this one time when we were out running errands, driving around in our minivan, and it starts: the crying, the screaming and the wailing. And it’s just getting louder and louder and we’re telling her to stop. But she won’t stop. And so now my heart is pounding, and it’s pounding faster and faster because it’s just getting so tense and I’m at my wit’s end. We finally get into the shopping center, pull in and park the car. 

Jeff unstraps her from the car seat and she is kicking and screaming. So he puts her down and we just walk away because we’re expecting and hoping that she’ll calm herself down and follow after us. But she doesn’t. So, we take a few more steps away, and when I look back, she’s still standing there, right where we left her. 

So, OK, wait, hold on time out, time out before anyone calls Child Protective Services. I want you all to know that it was never our intention to leave her. I mean, parents, how many of you out here have walked away from your children and just expected them to follow, right? But our Jacie, no, she didn’t follow. In fact, she stood right there, right where we left her. I had been expecting to hear her footsteps running after us. But when I didn’t, I turned back around and she has this look on her face. This look like she knows that she’s got us, because she knows that we would never leave her nor give her away to another family. And as I’m looking at her, I’m thinking, how did my three-year-old just outsmart us? And it becomes evident to me that our take or leave it attitude has actually made her more defiant.

Mariel Gutierrez: You can watch the rest of her talk on Here with me to discuss more about tantrums are Jewell, Bernie and Emirick. Hi, moms.

Jewell Buenavista: Hello. You sound a little sick, Mar.

Mariel Gutierrez: I know I apologize. Some of my [letter] Ns [sound like letter] Ls and Ws.

Jewell Buenavista: Okay, I get you. I get you.

Mariel Gutierrez: So, you know, if I’m going to cough intermittently I really do apologize. But—so we all heard this—I was going to say TED Talks because it kind of felt that way, right? But we all heard this Faith Speaks. Can you guys relate to this?

Jewell Buenavista: Very much so.

Mariel Gutierrez: Well, OK. Well, what do you guys think about the part where she—Jen was going to walk away from a kid. Have you guys ever done that? Like, does that work?

Jewell Buenavista: Every parent has done that.

Bernie Rosquites: As a parent, you got to walk away, sometimes just for a little bit, just for a little bit. sometimes for, you know, for yourself—not necessarily that you don’t want to hear them. But let me, let me—you want to come at them in a correct way before—instead of, like, snapping at them, so…

Emirick Haro: I have walked away, and it’s mainly so that I can calm myself, like what Bernie was saying and so I can pray, you know, to God for a second, like, “Give me some clarity, give me some strength,” you know? 

Coming back to this situation. Jen, you know, [shared] her experiences, and I can totally relate to many things that she was saying, that she experienced. But one thing that, like, I didn’t agree with was walking away to let them know like, “OK, I’m leaving you here.” You know, “if you can’t listen to me, then I’m going to leave you or I’m going to give you to another family” or something like that because I disagree with empty threats, okay? If you are not going to carry out what you say, don’t, don’t say it. Don’t say things just to scare them. And you know that it’s not that—you don’t mean it. You’re never going to do that. Because kids are really smart and they figure it out when you don’t mean what you say. And if they see that pattern where you constantly say things, but you don’t really mean it, they start to understand that that’s how you operate. Then they start to manipulate you as well.

Bernie Rosquites: You told that lie.

Emirick Haro: Yes, exactly. And then your problems multiply. So, I don’t think you should ever say something that you don’t really plan to carry out. And saying, “I’m going to leave you, I’m going to give you to another family.” Of course, you would never do that, and it’s a scare tactic. But I completely was like, “No, don’t do that!” You know, when I was watching that.

Jewell Buenavista: Well, I think the walk away from her kid, from what I remember from the video is, I take it—sometimes with your kids, you have to explore what works or what doesn’t work, you know? There are times that I like, you know, if they don’t want to follow me, OK, I’m going to go. I’m like, like, literally leave, you know? And then when some of my kids, they follow, you know? And—

Jewell Buenavista: And then sometimes one of my kids will not. And so then you have to try something different.

Mariel Gutierrez: Is there anything ever that works across the border for like all three of your kids, because you’re the one with—yeah, varying ages and genders. [Does] anything work, like across the board? 

Emirick Haro: Just being honest and just having honest conversations with them all the time, I find it to be effective. And yeah, it does take time sometimes. But like, I don’t know, I just feel like our relationship deepens when you’re honest and you have honest conversations, and you lay out, like, why something doesn’t work and you talk about the future and how that action is going to impact the future and all that stuff. I feel like it works with all three of my kids.

Mariel Gutierrez: I was a young mom, right? So I started out pretty young, so my patience level was not mature at all, you know what I mean? My patience level was very reactionary, like, they’re mad then I’m madder, you know what I mean? Because I’m older and boom, right?

Bernie Rosquites: I had to learn.

Mariel Gutierrez: Like, I’m the boss. Therefore, I must be the one that’s like, you know, I’m more mad than you are. I have more right to be mad than you are. But you know, of course, I prayed like, I think I’ve spoken about this a lot previously in other podcasts, where like when I was younger, I would hate to be the mom that they deserve, because there was no way I was going to know how, you know, on my own and I was so young. So that was my prayer. And eventually it got to a point where I don’t yell anymore. I have a really loud voice anyway, you know? But it’s not yelling. 

But my husband always teases me. He’s like, “Do you know that when you want the kids to really like, listen to you, say, ‘listen,’ like he, he always teases me. He’s like, “Listen”, and I’m like, “That’s not what I sound like,” you know? But yeah, I do have like certain words that I say along and they know what it means. You know what I mean? But I don’t yell anymore, and I don’t. I’ve never. No, it’s true. I haven’t walked away from my kids because I’ve learned that the best tactic has been, for them, at least my kids, I wait it out, I stand there, you know? It’s kind of like when people are like, what do you call that when they’re protesting? You know. It’s hard to try to, like, smoke people out or whatever, but I will do that. We will stand here. We will look at each other until the cows come home, you know, and they’ll have their tantrum. And—but for me, what I do is I take out my phone, I put on the timer, I show them the timer and I said, “You have one minute, okay?” And sometimes, if my husband is there, he’ll videotape them because sometimes, you know what? We show them, this is what you look like when you’re tantruming. Is this you?

I ask them, Is this OK? Is this you? Is this who you want to be? Is this you? Do you see where we are? You know what I mean? Like, if we’re at Target and you’re not getting your way and you’re having, like, attitude, we totally record them. We time them. And then—

Jewell Buenavista: Right? We would show them. And they’re like, “What? That’s what I look like?” you know? And the thing is, it’s not like you did anything to—you’re not doing it to embarrass them. You’re just telling them the truth, you know what I mean? Like, here’s the situation. Here’s what you’re doing. And so after that—like again, just my experience. It can go like one or two ways. I tell them, you know, like after their minute is up, like, “Hey, guess where we are, you’re in public, we’re here. This is why we’re here, you know, and this is what we need to do. So let’s go do that.” It’s very matter of fact. That’s how I speak to them, you know? And then we, you know, they can accept it. They take my hand. They’re quiet. We move forward, you know? 

Or they keep crying. And then in a weird way, I will force hug them. OK. It sounds really weird, you know, especially if they’re, like, tantruming and they’re kicking, screaming. But I will force hug them and eventually it kind of melts, you know? Like, my kids respond best to hugs, and I always tell that to my older daughter because she always fights, obviously with my son, you know? And it was like, “Trust me, the best, you know, way to just like, disseminate this problem is to give him a giant hug,” because it’s like, I feel like sometimes tantrums is like a result of them not feeling heard or understood, right? And you don’t have all the time in the world at Target when you’re just trying to get like soy sauce, you know what I mean? To make them feel like, yes, I understand that you want, you know, this toy, but you have to understand it’s not in the budget, you know, we don’t have that time. 

So sometimes I just scoop them up and then they start calming down, you know, begrudgingly. But they start calming, yeah, you know? So yeah, that’s what’s worked for me. Is there, like, experiences [that have] worked for you? Ideas or any tactics that you guys do?

Emirick Haro: When they were little, I used to do this all the time. And I strongly believe that a tantrum is just an immature way of communicating and self-advocating. And I want them to communicate and self-advocate. I want them to be effective at it. But a tantrum is just an immature way of that. So it’s nothing personal. You can’t take it personally, you know, you can’t get angry because you feel like they’re doing this on purpose to you.

You just have to—I would always remind myself, this is just a person trying to communicate and having difficulty with that. So when they’re having a tantrum, I remember if we were in public, I would always be like, OK, let’s walk outside for a minute, and then I would come with me kicking and screaming, whatever. And I would just be really calm and take their hand or carry them, and we’d sit outside and I’d be like, “Hey, I know what you want, but the way you’re doing it is not going to get you what you want,” and I would have to like, teach it and teach it and teach it, and then they’d go back in and then—

Jewell Buenavista: Girl, I got to give you props. After first or second time, the pinch and the—I mean, like—

Bernie Rosquites: Jewell’s threshold is like two inches wide.

Jewell Buenavista: But seriously, the fingers and the sharp pinching starts coming out, you know? So I—seriously, you explain and I love that you’re like that you explain it, and then you said second time, third time—you just explained, my blood is boiling already. I’m like, “You know—but—no.” But I love that you’re like that.

Emirick Haro: My blood starts to boil too, and I have this thing. I forgot to mention it earlier. I just remembered it, and I still use this to this day. But ever since they were little, I said, “Hey, guys, do you like mean mommy or nice mommy better?” And they’re like, “Oh, I like nice mommy.” I’m like, “No, I don’t think that’s true.” And they’re like, “Yeah, we like nice mommy better.” I’m like, “But you only listen to mean mommy, you don’t listen to nice mommy.” And so when I feel myself about to lose it, I’m like, “Oh, guys, mean mommy is coming out now.” And they get it together, and I mean, you got to kind of joke around about it, and then it kind of melts you too. Because you’re warning them, mean mommy’s about to come out and I’m about to like, go crazy on you guys.

Mariel Gutierrez: What can you do about you, Bernie? Your son’s like a talker.

Bernie Rosquites: My son’s a talker, yeah, he’s not afraid to tell you how he feels or what’s on his mind. So when he comes to those, when he gets to those times where he’s upset, he’s throwing that tantrum, you know, we encourage him, you know, to talk because that’s what he likes to do. And sometimes he hesitates, like, no, like today, he had kind of like a not-so-good day at school. And so when he came out of school, he was just already like, “Let’s go. Let’s just go,” you know? And I’m like, “What’s going on? All right.”

Mariel Gutierrez: But it’s so cute when he does it.

Bernie Rosquites: You know, and I was just like, “What’s going on?” He’s like, “I just had a bad day. OK, today is already a bad day, and I’m like, “All right, all right. All right, let me—let’s just—”I don’t want to talk about it, mom.” And so I’m like, OK, well, let’s just walk to the car. Let’s just, you know, so we just kind of let him walk and I’m like, you know, I give him that minute because it’s like, it’s kind of like, you know, when you walk through the door, it when you come home, the last thing you want is people just, you know, trying to talk to you.

Mariel Gutierrez: All up in your face, you know?

Bernie Rosquites: Yeah. So let me give him a minute. And so when we were finally in the car, gave him his Capri Sun and his snack. I was like, “So, dude, what made it a bad day today?” You know, he was like, “All right.”

Bernie Rosquites: And it either starts off one of two ways: “OK, let me explain why. Let me explain why I’m upset. Or let me explain myself, or do you really want to know why I was upset.”

Mariel Gutierrez: Now see, talk is like, Yeah, that’s our number one thing here. Like, that’s how we go through things. Like I said, I try not to yell too much. I’m just loud. They know that. I’m loud and they get it, but I don’t yell. I make them respond. I ask them questions like, aside from that, what did I just say? What did you learn or what did you do wrong? You know what I mean? There has to be dialogue. If they’re not paying attention and I catch them? Guess what, we reset.

Bernie Rosquites: We keep going.

Mariel Gutierrez: We reset. I bring my husband in here. I call my mom, my dad, you know, my mom, whoever.

Emirick: And then I’m like, “Oh, you didn’t understand? OK, I’m going to say it all again. I’m going to say it slower, and then I expect you to write an essay after.” And they’re just like, “Oh shoot,” so yeah. I make sure you understand what just happened.

Mariel Gutierrez: Exactly.

Emirick Haro: What just happened? Why did I get mad?

Mariel Gutierrez: And then you force them like, I know that they don’t enjoy it, but they are going to listen, whether they like it or not. And then they’re going to learn, you know?

Emirick Haro: I’m going to share this one quick thing. I know we’re talking too much, but I’m going to share this one quick thing where Russell and I just—I would say, like last year, I had to talk to him about—I forget what it was about. This was a conversation lasting two hours and he was sharing why he was having a hard time, why he was—and I got to understand him more. And one of the things he ended with, like it was an epiphany for me and for him. He goes—because I was getting mad at him and I was raising my voice about something we just kept going on and on about this conversation. And he goes, “Mom, I need you to listen.” I’m like, “What?” And he goes, “You understand, like, a bookshelf that has a lot of books and you’re trying to put a book back and it doesn’t fit and you keep trying?”

Emirick Haro: And I’m like, “Where are you going with this, son?” And he’s like, “And you just keep putting—you’re trying to make space for this book so you can put the book back, but you just can’t do it?” I’m like, OK, yeah, what?

Emirick Haro: And he’s like, “Well, that’s me every day. I don’t fit. Even when I try.” And, you know, and it’s like—

Jewell Buenavista: Aww, Emirick, I’m mad at you for getting mad at him.

Emirick Haro: No! What I’m saying is—

Mariel Gutierrez: Let the boy speak.

Emirick Haro: It was deep, and so yes, I got to listen to him, you know, like, yes, I’m making him listen to me. I’m letting him know that what happened wasn’t acceptable and that he needed to change his behavior. But then now I got to—like, we got to a point. So those conversations like, really, they help me as much as they help my children. They helped me to understand where they’re coming from, too.

Mariel Gutierrez: So with, like all of that said, to all our listeners, if we were to, you know, maybe give advice to that one mom in the middle of Target, maybe crying harder than her toddler, you know, ’cause you know, she can’t get this, like, Paw Patrol toy today. What advice would you give that mom?

Jewell Buenavista: You know, and the Bible teaches us so much. You know how we should be as parents, you know? And it’s such a great reminder. Harmony and I, you know, we have our everyday devotional prayers specifically for our family. And what we always say is, our prayer is just another reminder of how we should be. And that’s why the power of prayer is so—because, you know, you start off with, “Please let us be good examples. Give us the patience that we need,” you know? You know, let them see what—in what we do. You know, “how we should serve You.” So it’s a great reminder on a daily basis of how we should be as parents. And so, you know, then it kind of reminds us that when you, your kids do these crazy things where they’re not crazy, they’re just being themselves. You’re reminded of, you know what? This is part of it. Have that patience. Be an example. And so we should always remember, that’s why it’s important to start off the day with a prayer.

Emirick Haro: Yes, I agree. Tell that mom at Target, pray, right there on the spot. Before you start to lose it, ask God for help.

Mariel Gutierrez: So what have we learned? You know, tired moms out there, tantrums, you’re going to experience this, you know, but you’ll also get through it. Right, moms? Yes.

Everyone: Yes.

Mariel Gutierrez: Yeah, you’ll get through this, you know?

Emirick Haro: You’ll look back and laugh.

Mariel Gutierrez: They laugh at you, or the kids will laugh at you. That’s my experience, you know, but it’s—so it’s a communication issue, you know, as we’ve all discussed today, you know. But we teach them how to use their words. And, you know, hopefully if you’re lucky, they just need a hug and it goes away. So—but I just wanted to thank the moms tonight for their insight because I definitely learned a lot from each of you. So thank you.

Everyone: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Mariel Gutierrez: And to all of our listeners out there, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and for listening to this episode of Faith and Family.