Meltdowns are common among toddlers – feeling intense emotions like fear and anger can be overwhelming. Without the words and strategies to express them, toddlers often respond with tantrums to help manage their feelings.
There are great strategies that parents can work into their family routines that not only reduce the likelihood of tantrums, but also support a child to become more independent and resilient.
- Plan. Many tantrums come from child’s annoyance at the situation, combined with an additional trigger such as tiredness or hunger. If you can, reduce the additional stresses by squeezing in nap time, having quiet cuddle time in a manic day, or getting outside if you have been stuck inside.
- Understand their limits. Toddlers can only cope with so much and knowing where their limit is helps us better manage what is and isn’t going to work for them.
- Have routines. Having predictable routines is helpful for both child and parent alike. The brain is calmed by knowing what is about to happen (it is the reason bedtime routines work!). Having routines also helps us with our planning, reducing some of those stressors. Let your toddler know what is about to happen next and prepare them for it.
- Know early warnings. A tantrum is a form of communication from a toddler who cannot yet use words to communicate. Interpreting what our child is trying to say with their behaviour means we can avoid a full meltdown before things escalate.
If our child is in an environment that you know will be triggering, watch them carefully and remove them before the overwhelm happens.
- Seek the good. Tantrums and other negative behaviours draw our focus. Actively looking for ways to praise our child reinforces the behaviour we would like them to repeat.
- Find opportunities to say ‘yes’. Often, from a toddler’s point of view, the day is a long list of “no’s”. Reflect – what can you say yes to? Some things like supermarket shopping in a bikini and gumboots is probably going to be a no, but there are also no but yes answers which can be effective – for example “no, we can’t have crackers now, but we can have some tomorrow”.
Communicate what you want them to do, rather than what not to do. This promotes positive behaviour – try substituting “don’t hit the dog” with “let us pat Rufus gently, he loves that”.
7. Give control. Toddlers are seeking independence. The more control we can give them over their environment, the better.
- Give them a chance to make small decisions like “peas or carrots” throughout the day.
- Help them build self-esteem by ensuring they feel needed through giving them ‘important’ jobs.
- Take time to teach them new skills, especially those that may trigger frustration, to hand control over to them.
- Go slow. In busy lives we are often rushing, and our stress can build theirs. Slowing things down helps, as does carving out time for one-on-one attention.
- Be compassionate. Acknowledging their feelings shows we understand, hear and care about what is going on for them. Try it to prevent escalation – it could look like saying “it’s so upsetting that the toy is broken”.
- Stay calm. Remind yourself that their behaviour is not deliberate and is not personal. Be consistent and calm to de-escalate the situation instead of fueling it.
Despite setting up a great environment, tantrums can still happen, but looking at ways to manage the build-up and aftermath can affect what happens in the future:
- When you notice that a tantrum is brewing, get down to our child’s level, gently name their feeling, and look for a way to distract them or suggest an alternative way to manage or remediate the situation. This can help de-escalate their feelings and prevent the full meltdown.
- Teaching your child to associate a feeling with a word, helps them understand what to do next time they experience the same emotion. Start with feelings that are easy to identify like being hungry and move to the more complex ones once they understand.
If tantrum does happen then:
- Teach the child calming techniques to help speed the recovery process.
- Praise your wee one for becoming calm and show them your love. They will be vulnerable after a meltdown, so reconfirming that we care is important.
- Explain how their behaviour affects others and brainstorm alternative responses for the next time.
- Accept that changing behaviour can take time.
Find more practical tips on how to manage tantrums here.
A tantrum may be stressful, but a great opportunity for learning!
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This article is by Judith Yeabsley
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table. She is also available to run workshops.
Judith is mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.