No matter how cheerful and darling toddlers can be, they’re bound to have bad days once in a while. Charbel, my 3 year old has a very sunny disposition. His moody days are few and far between, but when they come, they are really hard to handle, both for him and for me. Often our 2 year old follows suit; between the two of them, we can go from meltdown to meltdown all day long. I’ve been trying different strategies, and have put together a list of ideas to help prevent meltdowns, strategies to overcome them, and some very specific suggestions from moms who have been through it too and shared what worked for them!
The best way to stop a toddler meltdown is to prevent it from happening. Even though it’s impossible to avoid them completely, there are ways to help toddlers learn to control their emotions on a regular basis that will help reduce the number of times toddlers have meltdowns.
1. Help your child express his feelings and validate them. Meltdowns usually occur when children are overwhelmed with emotions and can’t control them. Encouraging them to tell you verbally when they are feeling upset, and giving them to vocabulary they need to do so teaches them that they have different outlets for releasing their emotions. Praise your child when they try to communicate verbally with them, and show them that you understand their feelings. “I understand you’re frustrated because…” or “I know you want…”. This helps them realize that their feelings are OK, and gives you the opportunity to talk things through with them before a meltdown occurs.
2. Identify any factors that could lead to meltdowns, and compensate for them. Lack of sleep, teething, or poor eating are all physical factors that can lead to grumpy days. If you notice that your child hasn’t slept well for a night or so, try to fit in an extra nap. If you think your child is teething, you could administer a teething cream, or give soft foods less likely to irritate your child’s already sore gums… If your child hasn’t been eating well, try offering an extra snack or two throughout the day, or offer a new variety to tempt him…
3. Teach your child nonverbal cues. This enables them to communicate how they feel when they don’t know the vocabulary or are too wound up to tell you verbally. For example, draw a variety of emotions (happy face, sad face, angry face, etc.) on a set of note cards. Go through each card with your child, pointing to the face and saying the name of the emotion. Then, when you see one of the emotions in your child, show him the card that corresponds to the emotion he feels right then. After doing this a few times, your child will be able to visually identify his basic emotions by using the cards. When meltdowns occur and your child is too upset to talk, pull out the cards and ask him to show you what he feels like. This helps the child release his feelings and start focusing on communicating.
4. Teach your child to distract himself. This take a while to learn, but becomes very helpful. Step one to handling a fussy child it teaching him to express his emotion verbally instead of physically. Step two is teaching the child that even when he expresses himself nicely, he can’t always have what he wants. “Thank you for telling me you’re frustrated that we aren’t going to the park, but we can’t go to the park right now. We can go to the park tomorrow, but right now we need to do something else.” Immediately give your child different options to engage his attention. Pick the most exciting options available to distract your child from the “no”. This helps the child turn his attention from what he can’t have to all that he can have, as a strategy for overcoming his emotion. Eventually, he will be able to distract himself when he can’t have something instead of needing your guidance, but he will only reach that stage if you help distract him over and over when he’s a toddler.
5. Make sure you find individual time for each child on a regular basis. Meltdown days are often caused by a child craving attention. While we can’t always give each child as much attention as he wants, making sure all of our children have our attention on a regular basis can help mitigate this cause of moodiness.
No matter how hard you work at helping your child learn how to communicate through means other than temper tantrums, meltdown days are bound to occur. We all wake up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes.
Here are a few general strategies that can help brighten fussy days:
1. Ask yourself what mood you are in. Our children’s moods often mirror our own. They are very tuned in to our emotions and influenced by them. If they sense that we are afraid, they become tense and afraid. If they sense that we are tense, angry, upset or sad, they get easily rattled, anxious and fussy. This doesn’t mean every meltdown day is the result of the parents being in a bad mood, but they can be. If there is the possibility that your child’s grumpiness is a mirror image of your own, work on changing your own mood first.
2. Change plans completely. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different. This isn’t always possible, but it’s very effective when it is. For example, if you’re inside, try going outside and doing something active. If you’re outside, try going inside…
3. Challenge your child. This won’t work for all children – some children get overwhelmed when they are already upset and are being asked to do something they’ve never tried or succeeded at, but other children (ahem, my eldest), are always up for a challenge and can pull out of a bad mood by trying to throwing themselves into a new and challenging task.
4. Put your to-do-list aside. Be prepared to spend even more time directly interacting with your kids than usual. If the meltdowns are truly continuing all day and pulling you down as well, try to get a break at some point. If possible, see if your spouse or another relative can help by making dinner, or giving the kids their bath and putting them to bed so you have a little time on your own. If that’s not possible, say a prayer and stick with it!
In the end, I always remind myself that, even if nothing else works, my little ones will probably be back to their sunny dispositions when we all wake up the next day! And, luckily, they’re memory isn’t well developed yet, so twenty years from now, they won’t remember these meltdowns at all! Good luck to all other mothers with toddlers going through this stage – we’re all behind you!