How to Soothe a Fussy Toddler

Laughing one minute and crying the next? Learn how to handle your toddler's ever-changing emotions.

toddler throwing tantrum
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You've probably heard the phrase "terrible twos" or, conversely, "terrible threes" but what makes this age is so terrible? While your toddler isn't trying to test every ounce of patience you have, nor are they a "bad kid," todderhood is rough. Most young children are incapable of regulating their emotions, and this makes for some epic meltdowns. But instead of throwing your hands up in the air or falling back on "kids will be kids," learn why your two year old is always cranky and, more importanly, how you can help them cope.

Is It Normal to Have a "Moody" or Fussy Toddler?

First things first, having a "moody" toddler is totally normal. Some might even venture to say it's a rite of passage. But when they go from games and giggles to through the roof in the blink of an eye, you might wonder "Is it just my kid?"

According to Paula Levine, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of the Miami Counseling and Resource Center, "the majority of these ups and downs are, to put it simply, a very normal part of growing up, and it's important not to mistake them for misbehavior."

Of course, understanding and accepting this is easier said than done. So why do toddlers have these extreme ups and downs? Well, it partly comes down to toddlerhood being a time of emotional growth.

What Is Emotional Regulation—and Why Do So Many Toddlers Struggle With It?

According to Psychology Today, emotional regulation is the ability to exert control over one's own emotional state. As adults, we know that if we're frustrated, mad, or upset, we should take a step back before reacting to the situation and risking making things more turbulent. But toddlers, well, they're just learning how to do that.

Additionally, their language is (still) developing, so they have limited words to express their frustration, anger, or joy. So, it's not that your toddler can't master emotional regulation, they just haven't gotten there yet.

Self-Regulation and Ways To Help Your Toddler Cope

Even though your toddler is only starting to learn how to regulate their emotions, it's never too soon to set a solid foundation for self-regulation. And mindfulness is a very important part of that foundation. "Mindfulness helps toddlers move on from the fleeting experiences that might have made them cry, and instead focus their attention on new, less upsetting sensations," Susan Kaiser Greenland, a mindfulness instructor, told The New York Times. So how can you introduce practices like these to your kids? A big part of teaching the kids to be mindful is practicing mindfulness yourself because kids tend to imitate what they see us do.

Something as small as taking a step back and focusing on your breathing when frustrated can make a world of difference. A great example that your kids will relate to are the wise words of Daniel Tiger, "If you're feeling mad, and you want to rawr, take a deep breath and count to four."

How Can You Soothe a Fussy Toddler?

Soothing a fussy toddler is no easy feat, but it can be done. While some things can be done at the moment, there are other long-term strategies and routines you can put in place.

Create routines

Whether it's dinner or bath time, routines can help soothe fussy toddlers. But how? Why? Because having a routine (and sticking to it) can help keep kiddos calm since they know what to do—and what to expect.

Get enough sleep

One of the most common reasons toddlers get fussy is because they haven't gotten enough quality sleep. If they woke up early, went to bed late, or had an interruption to their regularly scheduled nap time, it might be just enough to set off major fussiness. Try to be consistent (see also: stick to a schedule) and make sure your little one is getting enough sleep.

Try to determine what's wrong

While toddlers melt down for a wide variety of reasons, getting to the root cause can be helpful—for you and them. Ask simple but pointed questions, if they can speak. Encourage them to show you what's wrong. And know that while you may have given them the wrong color sippy cup, sometimes, the cause is more serious. Some toddlers act out when they are sick and/or in pain. The more you can understand about their mood, the better.

Know when to step back and let them be

Letting your toddler throw themselves on the floor to have a tantrum is one of a parent's least favorite things to do, but sometimes it's necessary.

"Toddlers are busy teaching themselves which behaviors are successful in getting people to do what they want," says Daniel Broughton, M.D., a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic. "But if you constantly give in to the screaming, you'll teach your child that this is an acceptable way to accomplish a goal," he added.

Work to avoid problems

Certain tantrums can be avoided if you look for patterns and learn what's particularly difficult for your child. For example, if your child gets cranky when they're hungry, you may want to arrange play dates for a time after they've eaten. Or if they can play well with other kids for 30 minutes before having a meltdown, try to separate them at around the 20-minute mark.

Teach coping skills and remind your child to use them

As adults, most of us have developed skills to handle frustrating situations, such as walking away to calm down. But these skills are learned over time, and most toddlers have not developed them yet. As a solution, parents can teach a child strategies such as deep breathing or using simple coping statements such as "Everybody makes mistakes" or "I can't always get my way". Parents also should model these skills in their own lives. Before a situation comes up that's likely to lead to frustration (such as when they're engaging in a task that may be difficult) remind the child what they can do if they get frustrated. While it will likely take a while to develop these coping skills, keep in mind that you are in this for the long run, and working on them early and over time can be helpful.

Praise your child when they handle frustration well

When your child handles a frustrating situation well, point it out and praise them. Children generally take joy in being praised like this, and with many kids, behaviors that are praised are more likely to be repeated.

The Bottom Line

Finding the best way to soothe your toddler will be different for every family, but teaching them about different ways to regulate their emotions and soothe themselves will help them now and in the future. So try to be patient. Be persistent, and breath. This age and stage will pass.

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