Ask the Mamas: Toddler Meltdowns
Each week we will ask our mamas a question from our readers that pertains to babies, toddlers, or parenting. Make sure to check back each Tuesday to see their responses!
Do you have a question you’d like to ask the mamas? If so, send us an email with your question to email@example.com.
MSW reader Sandy asks:
“What do you do when your toddler has a meltdown?”
I start by getting down to his level and connecting, letting him know I’m acknowledging his feelings. I believe toddlers melt down mostly when they can’t express their thoughts and emotions. Not being understood when you want it most would be frustrating for anyone. I give him the words he doesn’t have yet by stating what he’s going through. Ex: “you’re mad, mad, mad and want to play with that!” “You say no, no, no, mommy. I don’t want to go!” Then I use short terms to let him know I’m sorry but he can’t have what he wants. I hug him and we do deep breathing together. We count our fingers together then end with another cleansing breath or two while I give him hugs and kisses. These are techniques I introduced around his first birthday so he’s very familiar with them and they do the trick for him every time. Once he’s calming down and the tears have stopped flowing, I offer a fun distraction or do something that’s sure to get a giggle like blow on his tummy. ~Laura G.
- As R is just now turning one, we are just now entering the temper tantrum stage. It sure is tough and I feel for any mother going through this. The last thing you want is for your child to be upset and sad. Amazingly, my daughter already enjoys helping me and this has been a huge help in working through tantrums. She was getting very upset when I would close the door or the fridge and she wanted to go in said door or try and grab something from the fridge. R would sit down and begin to cry and get very upset. Of course, the pleasing side of me wanted to run and open the door let her make a huge mess and deal with the cleaning later. But instead I let her close the door herself and praise her for her effort. She is very proud of herself when I clap for her and then happily moves onto another activity. We have also had great success with cleaning toys and changing activities when I let her help me pick up and clap and compliment her for choosing a fun new toy. ~Jaimie S.
- First off, we try our best to avoid meltdowns as much as we can. We try not to mess with nap times or bedtime and not let him get overtired. When he’s having a great time with a new toy or at the park and we have to leave, I give him warnings, “TJ, we have to leave in two minutes.” While he has no concept of how long two minutes really is, he aware that his time is limited. I warn him a couple of times within a five minute span. That simple thing has saved us from a lot of potential meltdowns, even when we have to put toys away for bedtime. When he melts down anyway, I hold him close and look directly at him. Then I try my best to verbalize what he’s feeling, “You wanted to play with that toy, didn’t you? Now you’re sad and angry that we have to leave.” While TJ can talk quite a bit now, (he’s two and a half), he often can’t put his feelings into words. Feelings of disappointment, sadness and anger and still pretty new to him and he doesn’t quite understand them yet. Once he’s a bit calmer, we take a “yoga breath” together (thanks, Sesame Street!) and hug it out. We are very lucky that TJ’s meltdowns are few and far between, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the worst of them yet as we approach age three. ~Alex T.
- Georgia doesn’t frequently have meltdowns (anymore), thankfully! We try to avoid them as much as we can. We are “roll with the punches” kind of parents so if she’s tired, she can sleep; if she’s hungry, she can eat. We don’t like to throw her off and set her into meltdown mode. All that being said, it does happen from time to time. When it does, our best method of attack is to get down to her level, let her calm down a bit, and then try to “talk it out.” If we talk to Georgia while she is having a meltdown, it gets 1000 times worse so we must leave her be for a good 30 seconds just to let her regroup. Once she has done that, we scoop her up and talk about what happened. For example: “I understand you want to have the cat food but that’s not for big girls, that’s for the kitties!” She doesn’t understand emotion at this age, (19 months), so working with her to be calm is what makes the difference in our house. Normally, a couple minutes later she’s happy as a clam and we give each other big hugs and kisses and go on our merry little way! ~Sarah H.
- I take a deep breath and try not to get stressed myself. My stress only makes the situation worse. I try explaining the situation calmly to my daughter and letting her know what behavior is and is not expected. If the fit continues, I pull her aside and sternly reprimand her for usually “embarrassing mommy” and tell her to tell mommy sorry. Usually we hug and she goes back to being a happy toddler again. But of course there is always an instance where your kid throws you for a loop— and when those situations pop up, it is all about survival! ~Cassandra G.
- I always say the same thing in my head as soon as she starts to show signs of a meltdown… “Her body control is not fully developed yet.” Honestly, this helps me tremendously to acknowledge that what she is doing is not because she wants to be the worst child in the world and make mommy upset. I get down on her level (always helps!) and talk in a softer voice to let her know I understand she is upset. She is pretty advanced in vocabulary for her age at 19 months so that really helps because the majority of the time she understands what I’m saying and understands why she can’t be doing what she is doing. Also, watching cues of your child and just knowing what makes them tick helps more than anything. I avoid letting her get overtired or over-hungry, etc. One other tip that we use is to offer choices rather than demand. One major meltdown time lately is diaper changes and getting dressed. We automatically offer her choice between two books to read or a book vs. playing music while we change diapers or get dressed so we aren’t offering for her to have her diaper changed or get dressed, but rather offering her a choice while we are doing it. This has helped us avoid numerous tantrums as well. When she was younger, we would redirect to avoid the meltdown and we still do this occasionally, but most of the time now that she is older we try to turn it into a teaching moment. So far, what we are doing is working! ~Kailey Y.
- We try to avoid meltdowns at all costs… but realistically they still happen. Normally, for the most part, we redirect or offer another alternative. If the behavior is absolutely something we won’t tolerate, we tell him plain and simple “G, I don’t think so buddy.” We also get down to his level, like the other mamas have said, and give him choices… “I know you like that babydoll, but it’s not for G… here are things that you can play with … which one would you like?” Normally if I get down to his level and talk him through it, his entire demeanor will change and he will forget about the tantrum all together and move on to the next thing. ORRRRR when he has a screaming fit “just because”… we pretty much ignore the behavior and he will stop. Sometimes I will look at him and say “what are you doing my friend?” and he will look at me and then stop and go back to whatever he was doing nicely and calmly. If he doesn’t… in that case we just have to let it run its course because nothing we say or do is going to stop him. When it comes to meltdown at meal times… I am bad and I totally give in to what he wants. I would rather him eat than not eat something he doesn’t want or like so I will give him what he wants (probably WHY I have a picky eater). ~Melissa T.
- We usually try to re-direct her attention, since her meltdowns usually occur when we tell her “no” or take something away from her. But, if the behavior continues, we usually ignore it — she’ll be over it in a minute or two anyway. Plus, we’ve noticed she’ll peek over to see if we are paying attention, and if we are, she usually continues for a longer period. But if she sees that we’re not paying attention, she calms down much quicker. She likes getting attention out of it! ~Sam A.
- We are just now entering the stage of regular meltdowns… Usually it’s because she wants something she can’t have and if we distract her with something else she forgets about it, out of sight out of mind type thing. If it’s a “just because” tantrum we just ignore the behavior. ~Christy A.
- Meltdowns are the worst, especially when you are out in public. We do our best to avoid them, but when they happen we take them in stride. Depending on the situation, I let him have a few moments to be upset, then I get down on his level (or bring him up to mine) and we talk about it. I tell him that I know he is frustrated and mad that he can’t do/have what he wanted. I do my best to give a reason why too, instead of just saying because I said so. If he still needs to cry it out, I hold him and let him. Eventually, I re-direct him to something else, give him water to help calm down, and we go on our way. I notice that he responds better when I stay calm and talk it through with him. When I get frustrated over the situation, it aggravates the situation more and it takes longer for us to get back on track. ~Cari H.
- My oldest daughter was a super laid back baby and toddler and I can only pinpoint one specific meltdown that she had. It was Christmas time and we were shopping (mama mistake number one), it was close to nap time (mistake number two) and I was letting her walk the aisles next to me while holding the basket (mistake number three). While in the checkout line, she lost it… I had to hold her on my shoulder while she was kicking and screaming. I just made my purchase and got out as fast as possible. Once in the car I was able to calm her down quickly. My younger daughter, Lilah, is a little more opinionated as a toddler and is just beginning to throw fits. Depending on what the fit is about I will ignore her or distract her. The fits never seem to last too long though. ~Miriam R.
- Ava doesn’t usually have many meltdowns but when she does, it is usually because she is frustrated and can’t get her point across. I usually get down to her level and try to divert her attention to something else. I try and gauge what she might want. Diverting her attention usually works but if it doesn’t, I let her get it out and just ignore her. ~Denise B.
- We do our best to avoid tantrum triggers, which for our 2.5-year-old daughter, are mostly being hungry and/or tired. So we do our best to keep a regular schedule of meals, snacks, naps and bedtime. Doing so helps keep tantrums to a minimum. However, she does throw a tantrum when she’s frustrated and/or angry. She is quite bright and gets frustrated easily when she understands how something should work but cannot do it herself (like turning a door knob, tying a shoelace, etc.) One other trigger is when she cannot have her way. She has a six-month-old baby brother and is struggling with sharing toys, books or even mama’s lap. In all cases, once she’s gone into “meltdown mode,” we try our best to stay calm and present. We empathize with her, talk her through her emotions (i.e. “ooh, you’re SO mad you can’t hold the scissors.”), remind her that we have to keep her safe and sound (i.e. why there are “rules” such as no jumping on the bed, not throwing toys down the stairs, etc.) and acknowledge that she’s upset and that’s okay. When she was younger, distraction and redirection worked much better for her than it does now. She can “remember” hours later what it was that set her off. Sometimes she’ll talk about it: “I was sad when you took the scissors away” or “I do it myself” and we can talk it through. Most of all, we just try to stay calm, know that “this too shall pass” and understand that it’s a very normal part of her development. ~Lori W.
- It really depends what the meltdown is about. If she is throwing a fit because she is not getting what she wants, then I usually ignore her for a short time. If she calms down quickly, then I sit down next to her and let her know why she could not have whatever it was she wanted. I always show her that I am empathetic to her feeling and say “I am sorry that you are feeling mad.” I think it is OK to let her cry and show me that she is angry; it is a very normal emotion. If the meltdown lasts beyond a minute or two, then I pick her up and see if some hugs will help, sometimes it does and sometimes it makes it worse. If are out in public I usually immediately try to talk to her about it. I will not give in to whatever it is she wants simply because she is crying and people are starring. A lot of the time, distracting her with a drink of water or something to hold and play with does the trick. ~Lindsay P.
The advice given here is solely based on our individual experiences and in no way is it going to be perfect for every mama, every baby, and every situation. None of us are medical doctors. If you have a question regarding a medical topic we can give our opinions, but please consult with your doctor. We are not liable or responsible for the results of following any specific advice in any given situation.