The Toddler Years
Two and three-year-olds are a lot of fun–most of the time. They are at an age that they are beginning to understand more about the world, but they have yet to develop a filter.
There will probably be a day when you are walking through the grocery store and your child will loudly ask you a rude question about a stranger walking by. They are beginning to understand the expected norms in society, but they have yet to learn the appropriate reactions.
They also lack emotional intelligence. They wear their hearts on their sleeves (among other things best meant to stay inside), and these emotions are big and scary to them. It is our job as parents to teach our kids appropriate responses and how to cope with their feelings.
This will sometimes be the hardest job you’ll ever have.
When my first little girl was eighteen months, I started researching toddler tantrums. Not because she had them yet, but because I am a planner. I wanted to make sure my husband and I would be on the same page once the terrible-twos hit. He’s easy going, comfortable with rolling with the punches and come what may. Needless to say, if I didn’t research it no one would have.
I am happy that we did this because it definitely helped us shape our responses to our daughter’s behavior without missing a beat.
I recognize there are many schools of thought on how to deal with toddler tantrums.
Not only did the approach I’ve detailed here work for my kids, but it also worked for the majority of children I was dealing with while working in an emergency shelter for abused children. All children are as different as can be. I can share what worked for us, which happened to coincide really well with the studies we read and the instructions we listened to.
Maybe it was quirk of circumstance, or maybe the science works. I bring up my work experience because I feel it shows that it is a technique that works with a multitude of different kinds of children.
While you are in the moment, it can feel more important to curb the behavior as soon as possible. Sometimes it is hard to hold back on discipline. Sometimes it is vital that you not.
The way you react to their behavior will teach them how to manage their emotions, so it’s definitely worth thinking hard about.
Even though we can feel clueless and insecure about our parenting, our children see us as superhuman. We provide and represent a safe place where they can be vulnerable.
It’s important to stay confident and effortless in our communication so our children can feel secure and safe in our relationships with them.
Here are some actionable things you can do to help prevent (sometimes) and deal with the inevitable tantrum. All the preparation and modeling of good behavior in the world can’t prevent the occasional meltdown. It’s essential for you to understand the reason behind your toddler’s actions so you can have a positive and impactful response.
Emotions Are Okay
It’s important to make sure our kids know it’s okay to be upset.
I admit, sometimes when my daughter was having one of her meltdowns because I wouldn’t buy her a bouncy ball (or a bottle of denture cream, for that matter), I felt so frustrated–sometimes even a little angry. I couldn’t believe how ridiculous she was behaving over something so small. I had to keep reminding myself to look at it from her perspective (so hard sometimes!).
We need to remember that as toddlers, every little thing is incredibly impactful in their lives. Not getting a toy or juice with lunch is minute to us–but to them, it feels like life or death. Think of the thing in your life that made you the most upset–a death in the family that took an extreme toll, a particularly hard break-up, a shameful transgression that left you weeping into your pillow.
This is the extreme emotional torrent that your toddler experiences in the midst of a meltdown.
But without the years of experience in channeling these emotions through safe pathways. Without the years of yoga or the guided meditation, or even the moral high ground that allows us to justify some or all of the types of emotional reactions we might have. It is raw, pure, unfiltered emotion–unchecked and unbalanced. Like a firehose full of white-hot rage or a deep well of inky black hopelessness.
Of course, there are some differences. Our toddlers are not as capable of complex thought, but the intense emotions are still present.
It is up to us to respond with love and respect and help them work through these tough moments. It will help them be better armed to deal with their emotions later in life.
Make Sure You Have Appropriate Expectations
Most people thrive on routine, and this is especially true for your children.
Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and there will be variations in your routine. Remember that any change to your regular schedule is going to affect your toddler. To prevent meltdowns, avoid making a lot of changes to your toddler’s daily routine.
For example, my toddler never had any issues with transitions into her car seat. When we were in the market for our second house, we spent a few days looking at houses back to back. The third day of house showings we went to the store for a treat once we were done. Once it was time to get back into the car, my daughter melted down in the middle of the parking lot.
She slapped me in the face for the first time, while kicking and screaming as we were forced to drag her back to the car–she was totally out of control. I was completely horrified because I had never seen this behavior from her.
On the drive home I sat and thought about it.
Usually, around that time we were doing a craft or playing outside together. We probably would be getting ready for dinner and may have already started eating. It was time for something familiar and comfortable, in a space she knew and with the comfort of bedtime ritual only a handful of minutes away. She was tired and hungry, and let’s face it–who doesn’t get emotional when they are feeling tired and hungry. Or when house hunting in an unsaturated seller’s market.
Think about this the next time your toddler has a meltdown, and ask yourself some questions. When was the last time they ate? How did they nap? Am I diverting them from their usual schedule and the comforts they have come to expect?
You will find that examining their day will often give you an answer as to why they are acting out. Don’t punish them for this. They are not emotionally capable of controlling their emotions yet. The best thing we can do is avoid deviation from the norm as much as possible, and cut them some slack when they act out because we changed up their routine.
Give Your Toddler Choices
Our kids are reaching an age when they are beginning to have their own opinions and ideas about the world. They know what they want (or at least think they know), and they are very expressive about it.
This is the age where it’s okay to give them choices about simple things. Often, letting your toddler make a decision can help prevent a tantrum.
I know, sometimes you can’t provide them with a choice–and that’s okay. Just be mindful of it and give them an option if it is reasonable. The choices you provide don’t have to be a compromise of your needs, and they certainly need not be complicated.
For example, when my toddler doesn’t want to stop playing and get ready for bed, I ask her “would you rather read a story or just go to bed?” She always chooses the story. If I just told her she had to get ready for bed and didn’t give her any choice–you bet we would soon be in the midst of a meltdown.
Another example. “It’s time to go home, so would you like to walk to the car or do you want me to carry you?” She would take the walk over being carried most days, self-sufficient and prideful as she was. Posed any other way and without choice, she’d still have been hung up on the agony of leaving.
There are varying reasons the presentation of choice seems to work. To me, it seems most reasonable that this approach helps them feel like they can assert their own wants and desires–and that is what they desperately need. At the very least, we force them to stop emoting long enough to access some small part of their developing logical mind.
Remember, however, that it is never a good idea to give your toddler choices during transition times.
For example, when you are going to grandma’s house, don’t ask your toddler if they want to go. When it’s time to get out of the car or the bathtub, don’t ask your toddler if they’re ready to get out.
Toddlers don’t do well with transitional choices, and you will rarely get the response you wanted. You’ll then have to explicitly go against their choice and subsequently undermine their capacity for making choices as a whole. Not only that, but this isn’t really a choice for them. It isn’t up to them to decide when it is time to get out of the car or the bathtub.
Make sure you are only allowing them to choose where they actually have a choice.
Don’t only give your toddler positive attention when they are acting appropriately, and don’t ignore them because they may be exhibiting “negative behavior.”
Studies have shown that kids who are loved “conditionally” are more likely to have problematic relationships with others (especially their parents) when they grow older.
When I talk about loving conditionally, I am talking about the school of thought that we should give our children positive attention when they do something we want, and give them no attention when they exhibit undesirable behaviors.
The kids who are raised with this kind of parenting tend to grow up believing that the only way to be loved by their parents is if they do everything right. If you are only giving your kids positive attention when you perceive that they deserve it, you are often withholding love and attention when they need it the most.
Kids parented this way may be more compliant with their parent’s wishes, but they often struggle with emotional suppression, not feeling “good enough,” and harboring resentment towards their parents.
This goes hand-in-hand with embracing emotional expression in your toddler. Even when they are upset and being dramatic, we need to approach them with love and care.
Prevent Extreme Reactions
Don’t make an “incident” out of any situation.
One day, my first daughter found out how to pull the outlet covers from the wall. I immediately responded by yelling and rushing over to her. She was stunned. To her, she was doing something she has seen me do multiple times before. She didn’t realize that she had done anything wrong, but she was very curious about my reaction.
She ended up doing this again a few more times, always making sure I was watching while she did it. It wasn’t that she was trying to disobey me directly, she was trying to understand my previous reaction, and she was testing the boundaries or maybe even just seeking to affirm that the particular action–in this case, risking a life-seizing jolt of electricity or at least a very bad hair day–would consistently result in the explosive and expressive reaction as it had before.
Obviously, this was a situation where I needed to act quickly, and you should never let your desire to respect your toddler’s needs come before your role as a caretaker and safety net. But there are many situations to which we as parents can overreact. Our kids test us because they are learning about the world.
If you have an extreme reaction to their behavior, they will likely try and recreate the situation to try and understand you.
Give Natural Consequences
Instead of spanking or putting your child in time out when they are having a tantrum, consider how they might be left to experience natural consequences.
For example, my daughter would get extremely hyper before bedtime. It got bad enough that I couldn’t get her pajamas on because she was flipping around in every direction. One night I told her that if she didn’t stop, we would not have time for a bedtime story. She persisted to play rough, and so I explained that we no longer had time for stories and that it was time for bed. I followed the rest of the bedtime ritual without deviation, but she did not get a story that night.
She was distraught, and I felt like crap. This type of natural consequence is hard–I love story time as much as she does, and this fell at a time when I was working nights and only had the chance to read stories with her two or three times a week.
Although it was hard to do, I can say that any other time I have warned her that we may not have time for a story, she immediately calms down.
Using consequences such as timeouts or spankings are not going to be as effective. Your kiddo will learn more from a natural consequence that makes sense. Be creative with it, and remember to feel with your child. It’s all right to explain that you’re sad we don’t have time for stories too. Maybe next time we can be calmer and have time for two stories instead of just one.
Teach Emotional Intelligence
Being able to name your feelings is powerful. Even for adults, this can sometimes present challenges. Do this with your toddler, as it makes feeling emotions a little less scary and mysterious, and is the first step to helping your toddler gain an understanding of emotional intelligence.
You can try approaching it like this; “you are throwing things, and your face is red, you seem really mad right now. Are you mad? Are you angry?” Just doing this simple thing can really help diffuse a situation–try it. As they begin to relate words to feelings, this gives them an extra lever to pull when they feel a meltdown coming on.
Sometimes being unable to name the feelings is half the battle to begin with, as nothing is so frustrating as being misunderstood. If your little one has a word for what they’re feeling, the least it can do is stand in as an early warning detection, and allow you time to get an umbrella before the storm hits.
Your child will know that they have someone in their corner that will support and understand them.
Give Space, Not Timeouts
Timeout doesn’t always seem like a bad idea. It’s a more comfortable option, and it gives you and your toddler some time away from each other until the blood cools. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes space is necessary, and that’s okay.
Generally, it will be more beneficial to your child for you to stay with them during their emotional moments. If your toddler is inconsolable because they are upset that they can’t play in the kitchen sink, respectfully carry them to their room and sit quietly nearby them while they thrash around and cry.
Be present for them and readily available once they are ready to talk through the situation instead of forcing isolation on them.
Your toddler will have a limited understanding of what “taking space” is, but start trying to explain it to them. When my toddler was very upset about a decision that I had made, I would ask her if she wanted space. Sometimes she said yes, and after a few minutes alone she was ready to start having fun again.
Don’t force them to be alone with their own emotions, but respect their wishes if that is what they want.
Don’t Always Use Distraction
Don’t get me wrong; distraction works wonderfully with toddlers. Sometimes it is the only thing that works with any consistency.
You tell your little one that they cannot have another cookie, they start screaming like a wounded animal. You excitedly point out the small beetle crawling across the floor. For most kids, they will match your enthusiasm and forget all about the second cookie. No harm done, right? We missed some empty calories and had an impromptu science lesson, or perhaps a brief primer on respecting animal life.
Think about this, though: What is this actually teaching your toddler?
They aren’t learning how to cope with their emotions, learning how or why it is necessary to skip that extra snack and why their reaction wasn’t fair or appropriate. In fact, it is quite the opposite. They are learning to avoid their feelings, learning to avoid the context of an important let-down, and this will make it harder for them to learn to work through their emotions or understand the value of rules and boundaries.
At some point, your toddler or child will have a situation that upsets them so much that distraction doesn’t work. If they don’t have the groundwork done to help them learn proper coping skills, how can you expect them to handle their emotions appropriately?
I can admit that there have been times I distracted my toddler to help avoid a meltdown. It is not a hard fast rule that you can not or should never use distraction with your child, just don’t make it the default response.
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First, I want to say that the majority of these basic ideas came from an excellent parenting book I read. For more in-depth information you should consider purchasing the book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. This book changed the way I parented in a positive way and I recommend it to my closest friends.
Remember that your child needs to see you handling the situation like the confident and awesome mom that you are. Try not to allow your child to see you lose your cool. Step away and take a breath if you need it.
Emotional hijacks will happen. They happen to all of us.
Just do your best to look through your toddler’s lens, and remember that they still haven’t learned how to deal with their emotions yet. The raw truth is that they are physically incapable of it, and will be until the ripe old age teenage years–and by then you’ll have much bigger fish to fry. In the meantime, remember that they’ll only be little once. Also remember that sometimes your little one just needs some time and encouragement, and perhaps a hug and a kiss.
Be ready to supply unconditional love for your toddler, and remember this time will pass.
Hang in there, mom.