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How to Work Through Toddler Meltdowns

We all know that toddlers have tantrums. It’s hard not to lose your cool during times like these, but as we know, this never helps the situation. Remember that when young children have tantrums, these are AGE TYPICAL behaviors and reactions.  They are trying to communicate with us but their brains are still developing, so they don’t have the language or coping skills to deal with their frustration and may not be able to articulate why they're so upset. Children need to learn that their feelings and emotions are always okay.  What the do or how they react in response to those feelings does matter.

I remember both of my kids’ most epic meltdowns.  When my daughter was 3, she was very particular about how she liked her syrup on her pancakes (in a little dish on the side for dipping, and not poured on the pancake).  One weekend morning when her dad poured the syrup the “wrong” way, she lost it. The pancakes ended up on the table and she ended up on the floor crying and wailing. Then when she realized she messed up her pancakes more by throwing them on the table, she was cried louder and harder for longer.  

My son just had his best tantrum the other day at a birthday party.  He skipped his nap to go to the party and then loaded up on sugar so he was definitely not in his usual routine or mood.  He decided that he wanted another cookie and a donut and candy, and I didn’t let him. He was beyond reasoning and just cried and cried, and did limp body when I tried to pick him up.  I decided that was a good time to leave the party so he could sleep!

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Acknowledge and Validate

In situations like these, I’ve found it helpful to:

  1. Acknowledge and validate my children’s feelings or point of view (i.e. you’re really upset you can’t have another dessert)

  2. Tell them or remind them of the expectation (desserts are done, you may have fruit if you are still hungry)

  3. Remove them from the difficult situation, if needed.  (in the situation with my son, I had to actually take him home because I knew part of the tantrum was brought on by lack of sleep.  In other situations it can be acceptable or helpful to go with your child to the other room or to the side until they are calm. This is both to preserve their integrity as well as separate from what had triggered them).  When they’ve calmed down, move on!

I have seen a lot of adults (and have been guilty of this myself!) distract young kids when they are upset just to get them to stop crying.  Be careful about distracting them from their feelings too often. This won’t give them the opportunity to learn to work through difficult feelings.  It IS okay to redirect, for example: Desserts are done, but you may have fruit if you’re still hungry. Or desserts are done, would you like to go play with your friends now?

You don’t have to rescue your child; allow them to have feelings!

Feelings are always okay.  What matters is what we do with those feelings.  I allow my children to feel their feelings, and once it has passed, we move on.  As hard as it can be to see your child upset or to listen to them crying, resist that urge to rescue them and protect them from being disappointed.  Rescuing them won’t allow them to have opportunities to work through disappointment and learn how to cope with difficult situations.

This does not mean that you let them “suffer” alone.    Remember: Validate their feelings (“I can see that you are very angry,” “It sounds like you’re really mad, I would be mad too” etc.).  Show your child that you have the confidence they can work through it. Offer a hug or ask if there’s anything you can do to help them.  You may notice that by being there for your child during difficult situations (without saving them), your bond and their trust in you grows even more than it might in positive situations.  This shows them that you support them and will be there for them during difficult times and they know they can count on you.

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Be Kind AND Firm

I have found that yelling, telling them to calm down or to stop screaming or stop crying, NEVER works.  Think about when you were really MAD about something. If someone in that moment had yelled at you or told you, “Don’t be so angry, it’s not a big deal!” or “Relax, you’re overreacting” would those statements help you calm down?  Try sticking with the steps above by validating and not giving in to the tantrum just to make it stop (even though that can seem easier in the moment!).

If your child becomes physical during tantrums, talk with them during a later time when both of you are calm and let them know that it is okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to hit.  Help them brainstorm other things they can do when they’re mad and solve their problems.

Matt Hendon