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Big Reactions to Little Things- Handling Meltdowns and Temper Tantrums

Big Reactions to Little Things- Handling Meltdowns and Temper Tantrums

The overreacting to small things is a reoccurring issue in our house with my preschooler right now. Temper tantrums and meltdowns occur with the smallest of mishaps or changes. And they are completely unpredictable! Sharon Peters from Parents Helping Parents has shared a story with us to demonstrate how parents can help their children overcome their big reactions to small things to avoid a total meltdown!

It can be confusing to parents when their little ones “over react” to a minor issue. This relatively common phenomenon in children, particularly when they are young, has thrown many a mom and dad into a big reaction themselves.  Here is a true story that discusses some perspectives for a parent to keep in mind before responding.

Sally’s story begins at a local children’s museum. She is four years old and enjoying a play date with a good friend. They have been laughing and playing together for a few hours when they begin to fight about a hair clip that they both want. Their parents decide that the girls are tired and hungry and start heading home.

While riding in the car, “Sally” continues to cry, saying that she really likes the clip, that her friend took it from her when she was holding it, and that she wishes with all her heart that she had the clip with her right now!

Her Mom somewhat exasperated by her daughter’s level of upset, explains the obvious: that Sally has plenty of similar hair clips at home, that she wasn’t interested in the clip all day, that she usually doesn’t wear hair clips because she says they are uncomfortable, etc.

Sally keeps crying, escalating her volume after each reasonable explanation her mother offers, but her mother continues to try and fix the problem.

Suddenly Sally turns to her Mom, stops her tears and says knowingly, “Mom, it’s not about the hair clip.” She then takes a deep breath looks ahead and resumes crying about the clip.

Most parents never hear the wise, “Mom, this is not about the hair clip,” but it is useful to remember that when young children in particular are tired, overwhelmed or frustrated they often get upset about a pretext. Parental solutions that focus on the pretext can escalate the upset. It can be more useful to listen, be understanding and if possible resolve some of the underlying issues at hand.


Sharon C. Peters is the founder and director of Parents Helping Parents in Park Slope. She has an MA in Educational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and since 1995 has met with hundreds of individual families and led workshops for many schools and community organizations. Sharon’s work is also published regularly in Brooklyn Family Magazine and other blogs.