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You can usually see them coming. They usually happen at really inconvenient times or places. Don’t lie – you really wish you could just do the same thing every now and again. We’re talking about one of the more difficult things to handle as a parent: meltdowns!
We’ve all been there. It can be embarrassing, frustrating, and even a little bit scary. But never fear! With these simple tips, you can handle toddler meltdowns like a pro.
Don’t take it personally
it’s not you. It’s them. A toddler meltdown can be a very emotional experience, not only for the child but also for the parent. It is important to remember that when your child is having a meltdown, it is not personal. The child is simply overwhelmed by their emotions and is not able to cope in a constructive way.
This can be easier said than done, but it’s important to remember that your toddler is likely taking their cues from you. If you stay calm, they will too. Plus, if you’re frantically trying to calm your child down while also trying to keep your cool, you’re going to have a much harder time of it. Take a deep breath. Speak in a calm, reassuring voice, which can be done even when also needing to be firm. Stay with them.
Assess the physical situation
Sometimes the best thing you can do is simply remove your child from the stressful or overwhelming situation they’re in. If they’re melting down in the middle of the grocery store, for example, head to the nearest exit and come back another day.
Other times, it’s best to just take a step back and let them be. Take a quick scan of the area and make sure there is nothing dangerous or harmful nearby that they may fall on, knock over, that sort of thing. Remove any safety hazards.
Get on their level
Put yourself in their position. Would it help to have someone standing over you? Yelling at you? Because let me tell ya, nothing helps me calm down from a panic attack more than my safe person standing over me, yelling at me to knock it off. (That was extreme sarcasm, in case you missed it.)
Get down on their level to help them focus on your words. Keep your voice low, slow, and calm, even if they are being very loud. Sometimes they’ll lower than volume just to hear what you are saying. Other times they lower their volume because of your example of speaking lower. And well, sometimes they don’t lower their volume until they’ve run out of steam.
Let your child know that you’re there for them and that everything is going to be alright. Offer physical reassurance if possible, such as a hug or a pat on the back. Physical contact is not always what a child wants or needs, and that’s okay, too. You can still assure them you are close by and there for them. Do they have a favorite stuffed animal or blankets you can get for them? Is there a special “cave” or space you can remind them they can go to to help calm down?
If you can’t calm your child down by talking to them or offering reassurance, try distracting them with something else. The goal is to redirect their attention away from whatever is causing the meltdown in the first place. This could be a toy, a song, or pointing out others things they can focus on or think about such as looking for certain colors around them or telling them a story. If you have a game or activity they enjoy doing, this can help too.
Avoid power struggles during a meltdown
Sometimes meltdowns are centered on an event, decision, or boundary that has REALLY upset them. That’s a completely valid reason. But it doesn’t mean you have to “give in”. I don’t like calling it that, but it’s the easiest way to explain it. Let’s say your child has completely fallen apart over leaving the park. You can be calm, keep them safe, get on their level, offer reassurance in calm words, and still hold the boundary of leaving the park.
Offer reassurance and acknowledge their feelings.
Calmly restate what is going to happen.
Shift the focus to the next thing.
Give them the power to make the next choice.
“Aw, Love! We have to leave the park, and you want to keep playing. That is very frustrating, and you feel really mad. It’s ok to be mad. We’re leaving the park now. When we get home, would you like to have a pb&j sandwich or some turkey and cheese for lunch?”
Give them a chance to regroup after a meltdown
Give them some time alone if they need it, but let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk. Again, try to put yourself in their shoes. After a meltdown or panic attack, we all need a little breathing room to ease back to normal. Some ways to regroup after a meltdown are:
If your child is old enough, let him or her take ten deep breaths by counting to ten (in through the nose, out through the mouth).
Go for a stroll together. Some fresh air and exercise are always good. Nature gives us plenty to pay attention to and takes our minds off the last few minutes or hours.
Have some quiet time reading or doing some art. Both are great ways to calm and distract your mind and body.
Make a plan for next time. There will be a next time.
With some time and distance from the situation, look back and assess the situation. Try to understand what triggered the meltdown. What was happening when the meltdown started? What was happening right before that? Think about everyone’s actions, the sensory things going on, the environment, the order of events leading up to the meltdown. What jumps out at you? What patterns do you see? What can you do differently next time to try to avoid future meltdowns?
Age-appropriately and well after the fact, talk to your kiddo. Help them identify their feelings and brainstorm solutions. What can y’all do to avoid the overwhelming sensory reactions and/or emotions? Talk about how they can let you know if they are starting to feel overwhelmed and remind them you’ll be there to help. Talk about what they can do to manage their emotions.
Take your own time-out.
Moms need breaks too! Helping your child through a meltdown drains an incredible amount of energy. If you’re feeling frazzled and like you’re about to lose your cool, take a few minutes for yourself to regroup. Step into another room for a minute or two, or even just put your child in their stroller or carrier and take a brief walk around the block if you can’t leave the premises entirely. Don’t ever hesitate to call a friend or loved one if you are having a hard time regulating your own emotions.
Most importantly, don’t forget to show your love and support!
Kids don’t want to feel frantic. They don’t choose to have big, giant emotions. There’s a saying, “They aren’t giving you a hard time; they’re having a hard time.”
In 25 years of parenting, I can assure you – that’s a load of crap from time to time. There are absolutely times they ARE giving you a hard time. But it really is usually few and far between and when they are much older.
MOST of the time, kids really are having a hard time and don’t have the words or tools to keep it together. Show them lots of love. Make sure they know you hear what they are saying when you talk. Reassure them that they can always share their feelings. Support them.
With time, work, and learning new and different tactics and tools, you and your children will learn how to deal with meltdowns, avoid meltdowns, navigate the ups and downs of emotions, and where to turn for help when needed.