I have a 19-month-old son who is generally a very happy kid--but sometimes he'll have a total meltdown for no apparent reason at all. Is this normal? If so, what's the best way to handle it? Nothing I do seems to help calm him down when he's really worked up.
It is certainly commonplace and normal for toddlers to have meltdowns or tantrums, and many times the reason for any specific meltdown is difficult for parents to figure out. There is always an underlying reason of some sort--sometimes fatigue, frustration, hunger, excitement, or jealousy play a role. The overall meaning of the toddler's meltdown is the fact that his wishes, needs, and impulses are simply too overwhelming for him to handle in a "reasonable" grown-up way. It's just too much! Instead of talking about the problem like a mature person, the child simply collapses. We might note by the way that adults do this too, probably more frequently than we like to admit.
The best thing, of course, is to see the problem on the horizon and to intervene so that the meltdown doesn't take place. But naturally, parents are not mind-readers and cannot always predict what will cause a toddler to have this sort of collapse. Perhaps you can think back about what sort of situations seem to provoke these meltdowns and make some adjustments that will help your son keep his cool more effectively.
Once a toddler is all worked up, it can be hard to help the child settle down. The most important support that the parent can offer is a soothing and calm reassurance--maybe a lap or a seat next to the parent on the sofa or a bit of food as a distraction. Sometimes parents fear that being extra kind or soothing to a child who is falling apart is going to somehow encourage or reward the tantrum. This fear is not warranted. The most important thing for a child who is falling apart is the availability of the loving parent, standing by to offer whatever the parent can realistically do to help the child pull himself together. Just saying, "There, there," softly can be useful. The hard part for parents (who are only human) is that the child's rage and excitement is pretty contagious, and parents can easily escalate too. Avoiding this trap takes superhuman self-control!
Time will fix this.
Elizabeth Berger MD
Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character