Tantrums and Meltdowns in Lockdown.

Family life and parenting can be stressful and challenging at the best of times. Lockdown comes with its own special challenges. I’ve been listening to those challenges during my workshop on Saturday and within my private practice. The majority of parents ask:

  • Why does my child behave in this way?
  • Is it normal?
  • What can we do?
  • When would I need to access help?

I hope I can respond to some of those questions here.

What is a Tantrum and they are normal!.

Tantrums are storms of feelings and your child may seem out of control. They are not always about power and control, but sometimes distress. They arise because your child’s higher ( upstairs) rational brain is developing the capacity to manage powerful feelings in a way that is socially acceptable.

Why is it so intense?

Anger like fear is a primary emotion. It is biologically based, hardwired, and virtually autonomic. Children have less control over primary emotions. They are limbic creatures and their amygdala(s) is more in the driving seat. Therefore, they are not born with self-control, they are learning to develop self-control and emotional regulation. 


Hence, they can’t link their feelings, thoughts, and behaviour in their early years. When you ask them, why did you do that, they really don’t know!


The sections of the brain responsible for these areas are not ‘switched on’ in early childhood, start at 5-6 and goes on until 24/5. It’s normal to expect this sort of behaviour from 18 months up to 5. Some children may continue into school age and beyond. They may be suffering from an underlying condition.

Tantrum versus Meltdown

I know many child therapists distinguish between the two, but neither are diagnostic terms. In my opinion, a tantrum is milder, you or your child may be able to calm and they may have some control, in addition, the duration may be less. A meltdown is an extreme outburst, your child may be totally out of control rapidly. You might observe:

  • Your child may go from 0-100 in seconds.
  • Your child continues to be upset when other children have moved on.
  • Your child takes a long time to calm.
  • They continue to cope with a situation in the same way as they did when they were younger and way past their developmental age?.

Why is this behaviour escalating?

This is a complex question to respond to, however here are some thoughts to triggers. During the lockdown, children, and parents are experiencing:

  • Social and Peer isolation
  • Change of routines and structure ( no school, more work stress)
  • Boredom
  • Fear and threat due to COVID 19
  • Underlying conditions and special needs
  • Parental stress, co-parenting and blended family stress
  • Bereavement and trauma
  • Societal anxiety

There are so many stressors right now. It is an uncertain time, your nervous system will interact with theirs. Co-regulation is something to work towards in parenting.


What do I do?

Always offer your child a narrative ( story). I’ve spent more than half my lifetime listening and relating to children. They have deep down feelings and knowings. They think about life and death. I clearly remember what it was like to be a child. I had wonderings and feelings, thoughts, that no one knew. Always ask your child what do they understand about……and if you don’t know how to respond, it’s really alright not to know and say:

Thank you for telling me, I might need more time to think and I will get back to you soon.

1.Safety First Always

If your child is hurting you or themselves, you quickly need to make it safe. You might have to remove them if you are out in a park or stop driving until they are calm. Following this, they need to have a clear and consistent limit. It is helpful to discuss a safety plan prior to an actual meltdown. It’s important to separate the behaviour from the child. Your child is not bad or unacceptable but the behaviour is. Sit down and start a series of review meetings. Decide on a consistent plan of action. Discuss a safe place to go or calming techniques. Remember it’s going to take time, hence, it will not change overnight. For 10 other ideas, click on the video below.

What’s normal development and when do I need to access help?.

All children have times when they feel and express emotions intensely, especially right now in lockdown. Therefore, as a professional, I assess:

The intensity and length of tantrum or meltdown, do they:

  • Constantly responds to events in an extreme way?.
  • Reach a high level of intensity of emotion quickly?.
  • Take a long time to calm after an upsetting incident

The duration, are the tantrums and meltdowns due to COVID-19 lockdown? or been prevalent for over six months or more. You may want to consider if:

  • The behaviour was/is regularly impacting on home and or school
  • They have trouble working out choices, responses, and the effect of the behaviour ( for children beyond the age of six, younger children struggle with this anyway)
  • They harm themselves or you on a regular basis or destroy property.

When your child suffers from intense emotions, it can be disempowering, challenging and so much more. Always remember that each of you are doing your very best always, they are not a bad child and you are not a bad parent. You can be empowered to manage them. If you need support, do contact me for a Zoom or telephone consultation, or sign up for my newsletter to be notified of blogs, free downloads, and a new parent group, parent workshops soon, and in September.

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PS. It is mental health awareness week and #kindness is their theme. Be kind to yourself and others. With much love and gratitude Catherine

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