Toddlers are unpredictable. They will surprise you day after day, sometimes that’s a good thing and other times…it’s not. You can count on one thing though: the meltdown. Some lucky parents may not deal with them as frequently, but you know those adorable little people are actually ticking time bombs that can go off at any time. Of course, detonation is seemingly at the most inopportune times (although I suppose there’s never really an opportune time for a tantrum). For the purposes of this article, I do not make a distinction between meltdown and tantrum – the gist is to learn how to handle when your toddler loses control of his emotions.
Preventing meltdowns is an everyday job.
What is the best way to handle a toddler meltdown? Do your best to prevent it! That probably sounds like someone telling you to just “do a better job” at parenting, which is both useless and infuriating, so let’s discuss some concrete tips to avoid toddler meltdowns.
A valuable piece of advice: kids are always listening, watching, and learning. How does this fit into the context of meltdowns? Well, how do you regulate your own emotions in front of your children? Consider if you are arguing with your significant other in the presence of your children, or behind closed doors and away from them. Consider if you have emotional outbursts when dealing with your child, or if you keep cool even when you walk into a room and find them dumping milk into your shoes. Children are sponges and will soak up the behaviors they see. The behavior ofparents will always be easier to change than a toddler’s (at least it should be), so take some ownership in the problem and assess your own emotional regulator.
Perhaps even more importantly, children will learn what behaviors achieve the result they want. Remember this when the inevitable meltdown occurs. The easiest or quickest solutions may not always be the best for long term results. Giving your toddler the piece of candy just to quiet him down rewards the behavior and reinforces that if he throws a tantrum again then he may get what he wants.
If you want your children to respond in certain ways, you must be the one to teach them. Children need to learn appropriate responses to various stimuli, especially unwanted stimuli that can cause negative emotions. They learn best through what they see and hear, including the feedback in response to their own actions.For all the folks who think raising a dog makes you a mom or dad, you likely got at least one concept in common with parents of humans– socialization. Kids need to be socialized, but without all the butt sniffing that puppies do. Put your kids in different situations, around other kids, other adults, and then most importantly either praise or correct their behaviors.
Acute signs of impending tantrums
Zooming in closer, what are some signs you can look for that may lead to a meltdown? Pretty much the same issues that plague us as adults and are magnified for a toddler who has trouble regulating emotions. Hunger, being overly tired, constipation, and especiallylack of affection/attention can put the happiest of us in a foul mood. All these issues could be expanded into full articles of their own (Picky eater? Poor sleeper? Potty training problems? Not enough time in the day?), but let’s suffice it to say you should be wary of symptoms for these and act accordingly.
One tip for the easiest of these to solve: hunger – a prepared parent never leaves the house without feeling like a pack mule –have a decent snack or two and water on hand at all times. If your child is a picky eater, then you’ll have to choose your battles wisely knowing that when you put your foot down at meal or snack time it could mean dealing with a hungry and cranky kid later. A worthwhiletactic that could both improve their eating habits and encourage decision making and responsibility is to offer choices. Instead of leaving a question open-ended such as, “what do you want to eat?” try offering two or three options and allow him to decide.
A regular sleep schedule is important not only for avoiding tantrums, but for overall health and growth. Be aware of the days when your child didn’t sleep well at night or missed a nap and have a plan for how to handle the grouchiness. Maybe that plan includes doing something you know the child particularly enjoys, spending more time one on one, or eating a favorite meal for lunch or dinner.
Potty training is an endeavor often filled with many frustrations, but whether your child is potty trained or not, constipation always creates problems. Not to mention that the cause of constipation can be myriad –holding it, poor diet, dehydrated, or more serious digestive issues. Look for signs of constipation and discomfort and act to alleviate it. If you are unsure of what the cause may be then discuss the situation with your child’s pediatrician.
Perhaps most importantly to long term mental health and raising a loving child is your relationship with her. You can bet that there will be emotional outbursts and that your child likely won’t know how to articulate her feelings if she feels neglected or is longing for quality attention from mom or dad. Children require more love on a regular basis compared to adults. As a mother, you may go days or even weeks without truly feeling loved, but a date night and quality time with your partner can change that instantly. On the other hand, for a child, going a day without meaningful interaction from mom or dad can create anxiety much more quickly.
How to handle the inevitable
We’ve covered some tips to help prevent a meltdown, but even the most prepared and diligent of us can’t escape these growing pains… Your toddler will eventually have a meltdown.The absolute best thing you can do for your child is to remain calm.
Next, run through the brief checklist – hungry, tired, needs to go potty, or simply starved for attention? Take a mental inventory of how the day has gone up to that point and try to identify something that could be creating anxiety for your child.
Sometimes the cause of the meltdown may be immediately obvious, such as not getting a toy or having to leave the park. In these situations, it’s important to validate the child’s feelings. Let her know that you understand she’s angry because she wanted that toy or upset that she has to leave the park when she’s having fun. Depending on the age of your child, articulating these feelings may be difficult for them and your doing so can be relieving. In addition to helping them express their feelings in the present, this will also help them learn new words to associate with their feelings in the future. Many of the frustrations displayed by toddlers is related to their inability to adequately articulate what they want. Helping them learn new words will help them better communicate with you.
If the root cause is not easily identifiable then you must do your best to simply acknowledge the child’s feelings and ask how you can help. Ask what it is that your child needs and if you can do something for them. Sometimes what they want may not be reasonable or feasible at the time but helping them to communicate appropriately can relieve some tension. Remember to remain calm and speak with a gentle voice, but also that sometimes we, as parents, simply can’t understand what is going through the mind of a child and are unable to soothe them. In these moments it’s important to continue to offer affection and kindness, but be aware of your own limitations and know when your emotions may get the best of you. We can only handle so much crying before needing to remove ourselves from the situation and you don’t need to feel guilty about it. If you, however, snap at your child and escalate the matter then you will feel guilty later. Accept the fact the we can’t always determine what is distressing our child, especially the younger toddlers who have limited vocabulary and ability to communicate, and sometimes letting the moment pass is all we can do. In these instances, taking a deep breath (or several) can be soothing for both child and parent.
What to do when a tantrum is thrown in public? No one said parenting is easy. This is one of the most embarrassing aspects of parenthood, but you must do your best to be resilient. Other parents of young children will know your struggle, older parents may have forgotten, and those without children may give sideways looks. Ignore them and focus on your child as you would in any other setting. Try to move to a more private setting and handle business as usual because to your child being in public likely does not represent anything other than increased stimuli, which could be part of the problem.
Sometimes punishment is necessary when a child’s behavior is wrong, or a tantrum is directed at harming another child. It is best to handle punishment in a calm and collected manner and most importantly to explain why the punishment is warranted.To that end, it may be best to wait until the meltdown has passed so that you can adequately communicate with your child. The type of punishment you choose to deliver is something that both parents should decidetogether and agree on beforehand. Divided and unclear parental responses can lead to children favoring one parent over the other – or worse, using the division to manipulate the parents. To be clear, positive reinforcement and rewarding good behavior is always preferable, but the parent needs to be an authority who will enforce the rules as well. It is a fine line to walk butbe sure to dole out punishment when warranted and not be a pushover who only threatens. Children will learn the difference between real punishment and threats, and if only threats are delivered then they will forever push your limits.
When to seek professional help
If you notice that your child does not seem to recalibrate back to a “normal” state of emotion between tantrums, or if their “normal” seems to always border on irritable and unpleasant, then it’s time to speak with a professional. If your child continues to have frequent meltdowns beyond preschool-age, or the daily frequency is simply too high regardless of age, it is advisable to seek help.
It’s also important to take inventory of your own mental health at this time. Studies have shown a link between parental mental health problems and behavioral issues in children, although it may be difficult to distinguish the order of operations in those situations. Dealing with behavioral issues in your children can cause tremendous personal stress, potentially leading to your own battle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Seeking help before these problems exacerbate one another beyond repair is imperative.
Lastly, take a broad look at the child’s home life. Remember, children are always watching, listening, and learning. Many at-home factors can have an impact on your child’s emotional regulator and whether he is prone to tantrums, such as marital problems, mother-only child care, or a simple lack of a regular routine.