It’s a familiar scene: you’re having a great time, and suddenly your toddler is melting down because his ice cream is “too cold.” It’s not rational, and you can’t do anything to fix the cold ice cream problem that has your little angel acting like you just cut off one of his favorite stuffed animal’s limbs.
You’re trying desperately, and of course unsuccessfully, to explain that frozen foods have to be cold. Maybe you’re telling him to stop crying or threatening to take the ice cream away if he doesn’t get it together. Guess what? It’s not going to work. The meltdown show will go on. You probably already know this from past experience, but seriously, what else are you supposed to do?
I get it. With a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, we’re a multiple-meltdown-a-day kind of house, and I know we’re not alone. My little man is really putting my tried and true methods, and not to mention my patience, to the test these days.
To help manage this new life with what people lovingly call a “threenager,” I spoke with licensed psychologist Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., a mom of two young kids and founder of Practice San Francisco, a wellness center that helps kids of all ages manage stress and anxiety.
Kaiser shared great news: doing less during a tantrum is actually a better bet.
Read on for seven things to do instead of trying to stop the tantrum.
1. Validate Their Emotions
This won’t end a tantrum, but it is likely to shorten it. If kids feel like you’ve heard them or understand them, they generally don’t feel the need to continue showing you how upset they are. Narrate for them, using language like, “I see how upset you are,” Kaiser suggested. Offer “feeling” words if they don’t yet have verbal skills or the language to describe it.
Just don’t go overboard trying to pinpoint exactly what they’re feeling–it could backfire. If you tell your child you see how angry they are when they’re actually feeling sad or disappointed, they may get frustrated with you. Janet Lansbury’s No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame recommends only narrating what you know for sure, which is why sticking with the word “upset” is typically my go-to.
2. View It as an Emotional Growth Opportunity
Everyone knows a “growth opportunity” is code for “something really not fun that you don’t want to do.” And while wading through a meltdown is something really not fun that you don’t want to do, your child is actually learning important emotional skills that will serve them well as adults.
“You can’t possibly spare your kid from every moment of frustration,” Kaiser said. “There is something to be gained by helping kids learn that the experiences of those intense emotions change over time. Those emotions come and go, and even when you’re feeling really upset about something, eventually that feeling is going to pass.”
Know deep down that this is an opportunity for your kiddo to learn about frustration, how to cope, and how unhappy feelings aren’t forever. The unfortunate part is that toddlers just have these experiences with a lot more frequency and intensity.
3. Don’t Try Logic
You already know that many toddler meltdowns don’t really make sense. In fact, you’ve probably had your own meltdown that doesn’t totally make sense.
“When we are really activated emotionally, we are not in possession of our best thinking skills, and that’s especially true for toddlers,” Kaiser said. “You’re not going to logic your way out of it; they’re not in a logical space. As parents, sometimes the best thing we can do in those moments is to take a step back and take a deep breath ourselves.”
Put simply, they’re not thinking straight. Don’t expect them to, and don’t waste your time, energy, and dwindling patience trying to talk some sense into them. Try sitting with them and patting or rubbing their back to give them physical comfort, while offering your emotional validation (“I see how upset you are”) without trying to fix the situation.
4. Give Them Space If They Want It
What if I’m being the perfect parent and nailing every single one of the above tips and my sweet firstborn yells at me to just go away? Hypothetically, of course.
The short answer: go away.
Provided that your little one isn’t in danger or putting others in danger, it’s perfectly fine to give them space, Kaiser said. You don’t have to send them to their room or put them in time out, but simply give them the space to sit with–or in my case, scream with–their emotions.
Kaiser suggested saying something like, “I hear you, I’m happy to give you some space, and I’m going to be right over here whenever you’re ready to talk or need a hug.” And don’t be offended when they ask you to leave. Kaiser reassured me that identifying what they need in the middle of a meltdown (like to be alone) is actually the first step in emotional regulation.
5. Let It Ride
Another hypothetical: you’ve gone through this list and done everything just right, but you still have a screaming child. That’s the point. They need to get their feelings out of their system to move on.
As adults, we go through a similar process; we’ve just refined our emotional regulation skills to the point where we find acceptable places to channel this type of energy. Rage cleaning, anyone?
As long as our toddlers are not endangering themselves or others, it’s time for us parents to just stop. Let them express their anger, frustration, sadness, or disappointment–whatever it is. After it’s out, they’ll feel better.
6. Talk About It Later
Talk about meltdowns after the fact, but not right away. You don’t need to get into rehashing the meltdown trigger–like that ice cream will always be cold. Instead, you can help your little one continue to learn about emotions by saying something like, “It looks like you’re feeling better than you were earlier, is that true? What do you notice about how you feel?” Kaiser suggested.
As toddlers get older, you can start to talk with them about how you want to handle meltdowns in the future and what would be helpful during those moments. Do they want to be alone? Do they want a pillow to hit? Do they want to practice taking deep breaths?
7. Remember You’re Not Alone
And now a piece of advice for your own sanity: remember that this is normal, age-appropriate behavior and phase of cognitive development, and every parent who has ever raised a child has gone through this.
“Parents all over the world are sharing in your experiences,” Kaiser said. “Someone else’s kid across the world is trantruming somewhere else.”
I love that. Mom solidarity around the world.