Toddler tantrums: How to respond when your child has a meltdown
Tantrums. If you’re the parent of a toddler, you’ve dealt with maybe…1 before, right?! Hahahahaha. Yes, my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek. If you’re a parent then – of course – you know all about the yelling, screaming, crying, thrashing, kicking, hitting and general lashing out that accompanies toddler tantrums. It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting and it’s overwhelming. It can leave you feeling like you have absolutely no idea what you are doing. And if you’re in the middle of a shopping centre or some other public place (and you always are, right?) then toddler tantrums can also be pretty embarrassing.
But tantrums are also a completely normal part of early childhood. And if Janet from the internet tells you her perfect child has never had a tantrum (and definitely not in public, ha!), well…then….she’s lying. All children have tantrums at some stage. Why? Because they are tiny humans with underdeveloped, impulsive brains and they are still learning how to regulate their emotions and control their actions. Toddler tantrums are not only normal, they are expected!
And can I tell you something? I actually really hate the term ‘tantrum’. I feel like the connotation is that kids are somehow being manipulative, naughty or bratty when they have emotional outbursts. But they’re really not. So I prefer to use the term meltdown.
Why do kids have meltdowns?
Quite simply, kids have meltdowns when the demands of a situation outweigh the resources available to them to deal with that situation.
- They have big feelings and they don’t know how to manage them (big feelings are scary and confusing!)
- They are feeling overwhelmed by sensory input and can’t calm down (immature nervous systems are easily overloaded)
- You’ve asked them to do something they don’t know how to do (that’s stressful even for us big people!)
- You’ve asked them to do something but they are already tired/hungry/anxious/scared (let’s face it, none of us cope well when our resources are depleted!)
A toddler tantrum is a sign of a stressed nervous system. An overwhelmed child. It’s as simple – and as complicated – as that.
What is a stressed nervous system and how does it cause toddler tantrums?
When humans perceive a threat in their environment, a strong emotional response occurs. We feel fear, anxiety, worry, anger, confusion, jealousy, disappointment, frustration – even guilt or shame! This causes the amygdala, situated in the “emotional control centre” of the brain, to get fired up.
A chain of events then occurs (called the fight or flight response) that prepares the body to respond to the perceived threat. During this time, the area of the brain responsible for thinking, reasoning, planning and all of those important rational and logical actions, goes offline. This is a time for doing, not thinking!
When a child is having a meltdown, their nervous system is under stress. One of the above situations has triggered their fight or flight response. This means they are no longer using their logical “thinking” brain – they are literally unable to access this area. Instead, they are using their more reactive “emotional brain”.
Learning to self regulate
A meltdown ends when the stress response is switched off. When a child is able to move from “fight or flight” into “rest and digest”, and the logical brain is back in charge, they feel calm again. Self regulation – the ability to control reactions and impulses and manage emotions – occurs when a person becomes more skilled at moving from the emotional brain back to the thinking brain (or even preventing the emotion brain from taking over in the first place). As you can imagine, this requires a lot of practice, and time! And when we are small, it also requires the help of adults.
This is because a distressed (and stressed) brain always needs the same things: Connection. Support. Safety. Now, the specific strategies that help your child switch off the stress response will depend on your child and their unique preferences. We all have different nervous systems. But the basic elements will be the same for everyone. To switch off the stress response, the brain needs to feel SAFE.
Kids are biologically programmed to feel safe with their parents and carers. It’s how humans have survived as a species. Which means our kids cannot learn to regulate themselves unless we first take time to connect with them and support them through their big feelings. ‘Co-regulation’ is the first step towards ‘self regulation’. One cannot happen without the other.
So how do you do that exactly?
How to respond to toddler tantrums
1. Stay calm
You cannot help your child manage their own meltdown if you are having one yourself. The first thing to do if you want to help your child is to remain as calm as possible. Managing big feelings in our kids is stressful for us. It triggers our own fight or flight response! So it’s totally normal for their meltdown to trigger some big reactions in you too.
Try taking a few deep breaths. Acknowledge the feelings and thoughts that pop up when your child gets distressed. Then remind yourself that their behaviour is not personal. They are not out to get you. They are simply a small person having a hard time with big feelings. Try reframing it as a great learning opportunity for you both. An opportunity for connection, for modelling appropriate self regulation and a chance to respond with empathy and kindness in order to strengthen your relationship with your child.
As we’ve discussed, the human brain is wired for connection. A child’s underdeveloped nervous system literally cannot calm down without the help of a fully developed one. So if you want to help your child calm down, you need to find a way to connect with them. This is how you say, “Hey, I know this is hard, but I’m right here.”
How to do that? Well that will depend on your child. But to start with, try getting down to their level. Make eye contact. Speak calmly to them. Connect physically if they will let you – you might place a hand on their shoulder, give them a hug, hold their hand, stroke their hair or gently rub their back or shoulders. Comforting physical touch is a signal to the brain that someone is nearby and offering help. It helps the brain (and your child) feel safer.
3. Validate feelings
We all want to feel heard and understood when we feel upset. Children are no different. And while getting your lunch served to you on the wrong coloured plate might seem trivial to you, the disappointment your child feels in that situation is very real and very significant to them. They need to know you’re there to help them with it.
Try this simple phrase to connect with your kids and validate how they feel: “You wanted…”
You wanted that chocolate and mummy said no
You wanted to do it yourself
You wanted to keep drawing on the wall
You wanted to talk to your brother and he ignored you
This helps them know that you understand them and why they are upset. When they feel heard and understood they are able to move on and calm down, because we have made it safe for them to do so. In fact, sometimes this is all our kids need from us!
4. Set empathic limits
Sometimes toddler tantrums occur because our kids feel frustrated or disappointed by a limit or boundary we have set. It’s important to remember that this is normal! We all feel frustrated when we can’t get what we want, right?! But as adults, we have learned how to express our frustration appropriately (mostly!). Our kids are still learning.
But responding with empathy doesn’t mean automatically giving them what they want or allowing them to behave in an unsafe way. In fact, a common misunderstanding when we talk about dealing with toddler tantrums with empathy and kindness is that we are “giving in” and letting our child do what they want. Or that meeting a child’s big feelings with empathy is somehow rewarding “bad” behaviour. But this shows a deep misunderstanding of what a tantrum actually is and the way the human brain works! We can (and we should!) let our children know that we understand how they feel, and set a firm limit at the same time.
What does that look like? “I know you’re upset but I won’t let you hit me”. “It’s ok to feel angry but it’s not ok to throw things”. “You really wish you could eat that cookie, and you’re sad because mummy said no. It’s hard to hear no.”
5. Ensure physical safety
Once you set a limit, you have to enforce the limit. And in some situations, your child’s behaviour during a meltdown may be unsafe or disruptive to others. If they are acting out, hurting themselves, hurting others or being generally disruptive in a public space, you’ll need to contain them in order to keep everyone safe.
For example, if they’re hitting you, you can move away, gently block their hits, hold their arms, or hold them in a tight, warm embrace to prevent them from lashing out further If they are hurting someone else, you can move them away or remove the other child from harms way. If they are thrashing around on the floor at the supermarket, it’s ok to let them know you’re going to move them to a quieter spot so you can help them. When we contain our children and hold our limits, we provide a physically safe space for them to express themselves, as well as an emotionally safe one.
6. Wait it out
If you have followed all the steps above, and your child is still upset – this is ok! We all need to just get our feelings off our chest sometimes. Kids are the same. Our job when our child is having a tantrum or meltdown is not necessarily to make them feel better. Nor is it to end the tantrum (although sometimes that does happen! Yay!). It is simply to provide them with a safe space to express how they feel. This is how they learn that all emotions are ok, that we are a safe person to express emotions to, and that we love them no matter what.
This is also how they learn that they don’t need to be afraid of emotions, and that all emotions are temporary. The emotion (and the meltdown) will pass, as emotions do. The important thing is that they know we’ll be there listening, even when they’re not calm. That we can handle their big emotions. We do that by creating a safe space for them to express how they feel and letting them know we are there if they need us. Sometimes that means we hold them while they cry. Sometimes that means we simply wait nearby. But it pretty much always involves waiting.
But what about the discipline? I know lots of you are wondering this. Well, discipline is about learning. And we’ve already established that when a person is in fight or flight mode, no learning can take place. It is the thinking brain responsible for learning, not the emotional brain. The focus of the brain when the emotions are in charge, is safety. So if you want to teach your child the correct way to behave, or you want to have a rational conversation with them, during a tantrum is NOT the time to do it.
They will eventually calm down. And once the meltdown is over, and the rational brain is back online, then we can teach them. Then we can talk about how they were feeling, and what triggered them, and what they can try to do differently next time. Then we give them different tools, ideas and strategies for managing similar situations and emotions in the future. But until then, we simply wait. We stay with them. We hold space. And we show them what healthy self regulation looks like, by modelling it ourselves.