Grumpy little girlEvery parent has looked on in horror, or confusion, as their child melts down over a small disappointment like it’s the end of the world.

She throws a tantrum because she can’t find the purple shoes she “needs” to wear. You bought the “wrong” kind of cereal bar and he sobs on the floor in protest. You wouldn’t let her eat ice cream for breakfast so she’s “never” going to eat anything ever again.

It’s no surprise that children (and adults for that matter!) occasionally get disappointed when something doesn’t go their way. Young children in particular can get their heart set on small things because those small things loom large in a child’s world.

But when your child chronically melts down over small letdowns or setbacks, it could indicate they are struggling to develop emotional regulation skills. Emotional regulation is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us effectively execute daily tasks.

What to do?

Validate disappointment

“Your child’s tears over small stuff are related to emotional control,” says neuropsychologist Iris Paltin, PhD, of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The tears themselves should be thought of as neutral — there’s nothing either good or bad about them. You should verbally acknowledge your child’s sadness or disappointment, but you don’t have to do anything.”

In other words, parents shouldn’t “fix” the problem by giving in to their child’s unreasonable demand. Avoid a pattern where you change your behavior because your child is crying or acting out.

“This can help your child learn a response other than crying,” says Dr. Paltin. “Validate her feelings, but remove the attention from crying. Focus instead on redirecting her behavior towards the goal, and ignore additional outbursts. Lavish praise for attempting or accomplishing the goal.”

Put it into action

What not to do: Say, “I’ll go to the store and buy the cereal bars you want,” and ignore her upset feelings.

Try this instead: Say, “I’m sorry I didn’t buy the cereal bars you want and that you’re upset. You’ll have to find a different snack you like until the next time I go shopping.”

If your child chooses another snack — even with some crying or whining — that’s success. So praise the action. Say, “I can tell that was hard for you, but I’m proud that you found something else you like.”

Focus on the end goal and give attention to that, not the tears.

Remember: There is nothing inherently wrong with an intense reaction. The problem arises when the intensity lasts too long, or your child has a hard time bouncing back.

If you continue to feel concern over the intensity or frequency of your child’s meltdowns, talk to your pediatrician. They’ll help you differentiate between what’s normal and what’s not.