How NOT to Deal with Your Toddler's Meltdown

Tip 4: Don't take tantrums personally. They call it the "terrible twos" for good reason, and it has nothing to do with your parenting skills. Here's how to handle these tough moments instead.

Biting Toddler Looking at Mother
Photo: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/Shutterstock

Watching your toddler about to have a tantrum can feel like standing in the path of an oncoming train. Often, you panic—and you are willing to do or say just about anything to avoid a full-on red-faced, snot-covered, puddle-on-the-floor meltdown.

Maybe you plaster a big smile on your face and insist to your child through gritted teeth that everything is fine, or hiss that they are this close to a time-out, or give in and give them exactly what they want. But the truth is, these tactics don't work. In fact, your knee-jerk, desperate responses can even make things worse.

Here are five common mistakes parents make in the middle of a meltdown, plus my suggestions for what to do instead to nip blow-ups in the bud.

1. Don't invalidate your toddler's perspective or emotions

Is your toddler freaking out because the ketchup is touching the French fries? Because you removed a Band-Aid he wanted to keep wearing? Because you won't let her drink the tub water? Yes, many of the reasons kids throw fits are patently absurd (there are whole memes and websites devoted to the idea), but avoid saying things like "it's not a big deal," "there's nothing to get so upset about," or "you're being ridiculous."

What to do instead: Take their reactions and experiences seriously! Will you let out a giggle once in a while? Of course. But looking at their distress from your own adult perspective only adds fuel to the fire.

2. Don't tell your child how to feel

I see this a lot around play, particularly when children are attempting to master a new skill, such as constructing a building out of blocks or drawing a (perfect) circle. Often, children will scream or cry when they "mess up," and parents will rush in saying, "Relax! Calm down! There's nothing to get upset about!" or "Don't be angry!" But these comments invalidate your child's emotions and experiences.

What to do instead: Simply help label your toddler's feelings, or describe the circumstance at hand: "You're frustrated that it looks more like a rectangle than a circle, huh?" or "You were working so hard and then the dog came over and ruined it." When children have the opportunity to have their emotions heard and understood by their parents, they feel soothed.

3. Don't say that your child's behavior is making you sad

I've heard this a lot over the years. A child will begin to get angry or upset about something, and a parent will respond by making a pouty face and saying, "You know it makes me so sad when you act like that." Telling your toddler that his tantrum is making you feel sad might stop him in his tracks for a minute, but it won't last, and it puts a responsibility on his shoulders that, developmentally, he is not yet ready to carry.

What to do instead: Saying "I'm starting to feel frustrated/angry/upset" is preferable, as the wording implies that your feelings are your own. It also models your ability to recognize and label and your emotions and then act accordingly--a skill your child will benefit from learning himself.

4. Don't take tantrums personally

Q-TIP is a great acronym. That is: Quit Taking It Personally. When your toddler is having a tantrum, she may well pull out all the stops: "I hate you!" "You're a bad mommy!" "I want Daddy, not you!" "You're mean!" These things are never easy to hear, especially from your own child. And yet, these comments are appropriate expressions of anger for children this age.

Try this instead: Remember to see the world the way your child does. In that moment, your child does hate you—that is, she is the toddler version of very, very angry at you. As difficult as it may be, you're much more likely to de-escalate a tantrum by accepting and acknowledging that to be the case then by denying the overall veracity of the statement.

5. Don't give negative consequences—including time-out—for tantrums

Tantrums in toddlers are developmentally appropriate and normal expressions of strong emotions. Sometimes they are calls for communication and connectedness. Other times they are attempts to test limits. Tantrums can be a lot of things. What tantrums cannot be are punishable offenses that will decrease if they are followed by a negative consequence, such as a time-out or removal of privileges.

Try this instead: Remove your attention. Ignoring behavior—like tantrums—that you want to discourage can be as effective as paying attention to behavior you want to encourage. Make a kind, empathetic remark ("I can see how upset you are") and then do something else—unload the dishwasher, flip through a magazine, even look at your phone. This gives your toddler a break to calm down and pull himself together.

The Tantrum Survival Guide Book Cover
The Guilford Press
Rebecca Schrag Hershberg Portrait

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., is the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide and the founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services.

Excerpted from The Tantrum Survival Guide by Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D. Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission from The Guilford Press.

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