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Managing Meltdowns: How You Can Address Your Child's Challenging Behavior and Keep Your Cool

It’s a rare parent who doesn’t have to deal with a child’s temper tantrum, meltdown, or other challenging behavior at some point. Why do young children act up, and what triggers the behavior? This article will help to answer those questions and assist you in developing a plan that can improve your child’s behavior.

The first thing to realize is that all behavior has a purpose: communication. Children who don’t have an appropriate way to express ideas and feelings may cry, hit, or pout to let you know they need something, such as food; want something, such as a favorite toy; or want to avoid something, such as going to bed. Children may act up for other reasons as well. They may have limited social skills, may have learned that misbehaving is more effective than language, may be physically uncomfortable, may not know what’s expected of them, or may be faced with unreasonable expectations.

The situations may be different, but one theme unites them: Children engage in challenging behavior because it works for them.

The first step in helping children improve their behavior is to determine what they are trying to communicate and when the behavior is most likely to occur. Keeping a record of when and where the behavior happens can help you identify patterns. Be sure to note what was happening just prior to the behavior, what you observed, and what happened afterward. Is there a certain time of day or a particular activity that seems to be more difficult for your child?

Behavior Plan

Once you have determined the purpose of the behavior, you can create a plan to change it. This behavior plan should have three parts: prevention, education, and consistency.


Try these strategies to help increase desired behaviors and decrease unwanted ones.

  • Consistently praise and encourage children when they are acting properly. Being specific in your praise helps children learn what you want them to do. For example, rather than telling your son he’s a good boy when he shares his toys, say, “Great sharing! I like it when you share your toys with your brother.”
  • Express clear, realistic expectations to your child. For example, if your daughter is not able to pick up all her toys by herself but could help you with the task, you might express that realistic expectation by saying, “I’ll pick up 10 toys and you’ll pick up 10 toys.” After the toys are picked up, praise your child for her cooperation.
  • Set a few clear household rules. Be sure to state the rules in a positive manner, explaining what you want your child to do, not what you don’t want. For instance, you might say, “use gentle touch” rather than “no hitting.” Review the rules daily and make sure your child understands what is expected. If you also have consequences for breaking the rules, make them clear and be sure to give them consistently.


Teach your child new skills for communicating and participating in routines or expectations.

  • Teach your child the language to use to in order to meet his or her needs. For example, if your son tries to grab a toy from another child, teach him how to obtain that toy in an appropriate manner. You might say, “Zach, please ask Jenny to give you the blocks when she is finished playing with them. Now say thank you.” If your daughter whines when she wants a drink of juice, you could say, “Sally, say ‘juice please.’” (For a nonverbal child, teach the sign or picture to use.) Once you have given her the words and she has the ability to use them, tell her you will expect her to use her words to ask for juice next time and ignore the whining. Give Sally the juice only when she uses her words or signs.
  • Children also need to learn and practice problem solving skills. If your son throws his plate to indicate that he wants to be done with a meal, teach him the words or sign language for “all done.” Give him several opportunities to practice, and then be sure that he can no longer escape mealtime by throwing his plate. Remember to praise your child when he uses his words or signs to let you know he’s finished with a meal.


Be consistent in making sure your child’s challenging behaviors are no longer effective.

  • Respond to your child’s unacceptable actions with consequences that are practical and logically related to the behavior. For example, if your daughter is using a toy in an inappropriate way, calmly remind her how it is to be used and make it clear that if she persists, the toy will be put away. If she continues using the toy inappropriately, calmly remove the toy. Your child will learn that you expect her to play with toys in an appropriate manner. Logical consequences teach children that they have control over their own behavior.

By understanding why children have challenging behaviors, you can plan effective responses. Prevention strategies, new skills, and proper reinforcement of desired behaviors can all help. As you develop your behavior plan, make sure that it will fit with your family and that you are committed to the work and energy it will take to follow through.

To provide your child with consistency, you also may find it valuable to involve childcare providers, preschool teachers, extended family members, or other people who care for your child in a plan to address challenging behaviors. If your child has an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or Individualized Education Program (IEP), you can ask the team members how to create and follow through on a behavior plan.

Change won’t happen overnight, but as children learn that challenging behaviors no longer work for them, they will begin to use the new skills you have taught them. As you lay the foundation for helping them learn new ways to interact and behave, the quality of their relationships will improve and your time with your child will become less stressful and more enjoyable.

Won't or Can't: Why Don't Children Behave?

There are two ways to look at challenging behavior. One is to conclude that the child won't behave. In that case, the first response may be to punish. Punishment, however, seldom teaches a new skill or behavior. The other view is that the child can't behave. In that case, the response is to teach the child the skills that would help meet his or her needs in a more appropriate manner.