It’s the middle of dinner-prep, or it’s the middle of the grocery store.
You saw it coming a mile away, or it came right out of the blue.
It’s the same tantrum that always happens, or it’s something inexplicably new.
Whatever the case may be, you have a toddler in meltdown mode. What now?
Here are 5 things NOT to do and what to do instead.
1. Don’t make it about you.
When your child has a meltdown, she is expressing big emotions that she has a right to feel. She is not manipulating you, challenging you, or punishing you. In fact, it may have nothing to do with you at all. Even if the meltdown seems like a response to something you did or didn’t do, your child’s emotions are all her own.
Don’t get defensive, don’t feel guilty, and don’t get angry. Focus your attention on your child in distress. She needs you now. It’s not about you.
2. Don’t get sucked in.
Your toddler needs you to be calm instead of angry, frantic, or confused. A toddler’s meltdown can be so BIG! Huge emotions come pouring out! And often the meltdown comes when you’re not feeling balanced yourself. You might feel your own emotions swell as you get pulled into the emotional vortex your child is creating. You might have the urge to yell back, to argue, or to sit down and have a cry yourself.
But you’re the bigger person here, and you can wait to fall apart until after you’ve cared for your child. She needs the safety of your strong, calm presence. Take a big breath and find your inner source of stillness. (And don’t forget to take that minute to fall apart later!)
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3. Don’t belittle the feelings.
This situation matters to your child, whatever the cause may be. Toddlers’ problems are often seen as trivial. But what is happening for her is serious – it’s exactly as serious as it looks and sounds. A toddler in meltdown is a human in distress. Don’t mock her feelings, try to brush them off, or try to explain them away.
Instead, reach into what you know about life and about your child to find the place where you can empathize. For example, you might find that, yes, it is rather frustrating when you’re not allowed to buy what you want from the store. Or yes, sometimes it is heartbreaking when the person you most love is busy doing something else. You don’t have to say it out loud, but finding empathy within yourself will change how you see your child’s meltdown.
4. Don’t try to fix it.
An emotional meltdown can be stressful for anyone nearby, but resist the urge to try to make it stop. This sends the message that there’s something wrong with your child’s emotions. Your child may think there’s something wrong with themselves.
You might feel tempted to “give in” if you had been withholding something. You might want to try to distract your child with funny faces or a promise of something enjoyable. Even a focused effort to sooth your child may come off as trying to brush away the emotions. Your intentions are good! But remember that it’s okay to express big emotions, and they don’t always have to be fixed. They can just be.
When you’re both ready, here are 63 ideas for things to do together!
5. Don’t walk away.
Given all these “don’ts”, you might have the urge to walk away until your child calms down. Don’t do that, either. Big emotions can be scary for toddlers. They need to know you can handle it and that you are a safe space to express these emotions. Stay nearby – in touching range, if possible. This closeness is valuable for your child, even if she doesn’t seem to appreciate it in the moment.
What CAN you do?
- Stay calm. Big breaths. Be still. Talk gently.
- Acknowledge the thing that went wrong if you know what it was: “You wanted those cookies, and I said no.” Make it a simple statement of the facts.
- Give language to the feelings, at the toddler level. “You’re mad! So mad!” or “You don’t understand what happened,” or “You got so frustrated about that!”
- Sit quietly nearby or touch your child gently if that helps her feel connected.
- Say something about your presence and acceptance. “I’m here with you,” or “I’ll sit with you while you cry,” or “Mama’s here,” or “I’ve got you.”
Let your child direct the end of the meltdown. She may hop right up and be ready for the next thing. She may relax into snuggling for a bit.
Be thankful that your toddler trusts you with her big feelings. Be thankful that you two can weather these storms together.