Your 2-year-old has had enough shopping. He starts fussing and tries to climb out of the cart. Soon he’s screaming, “Get out! Get out!” at the top of his little lungs. No amount of distracting or reasoning soothes his tirade. Your toddler is having a meltdown.
Emotional breakdowns can be near-daily occurrences in children younger than 5. Wide-open throttles, insatiable curiosity, poor self-control, limited language skills and nanosecond attention spans mean young kids go from glee to devastation at a moment’s notice. And Mom and Dad are left to put out yet another fire.
A lot also depends on kids’ innate temperament. Yes, toddlerhood is synonymous with wild baby mood swings. Still, some kids are more emotionally fragile than others. They are unhinged by the least little stressor and remain upset long after others are contentedly eating a snack.
Parents can’t change their tots’ personality or emotional development. But there are steps they can take to minimize the trauma. Here’s how:
Stay calm. Your tot has already gone ballistic. Don’t add your own bad behavior to the mix. Take a deep breath and relax as best you can. Remember, you’re the adult.
Make eye contact. Get down to your child’s level and look him straight in the eye. Let him know you mean business and that you expect him to get control of himself.
Talk softly. The natural inclination is to outshout a child who is having a tantrum. But if you whisper, she’ll have to stop screaming in order to hear your words.
Be understanding. Express compassion for your toddler’s plight. A sincere, “I know you’d like to go outside,” helps her verbalize her emotions and know you’re on her side. Calmly saying the phrase over and over may defuse the situation.
Set a clear limit. Tell the child what has to happen; for example, “I need you to sit in the cart.” Use as few words as possible. Keep your tone pleasant but firm.
Try to distract. Redirect a tot’s focus to something pleasant. It might be a random scene (“Marcus, look at all those balloons!”) or an item you’ve conveniently tucked away for such a moment (“Lilly, here’s Cuddle Bunny!”)
Plan ahead. Do your best to stack the odds in your favor. For instance, don’t take a child to the mall during her naptime. And make sure you have ample snacks before heading out to big brother’s soccer game.
Remove your child from the situation. If you’re out in public and can tell things are headed downhill, swiftly carry the little screamer to a neutral environment, such as a park bench or the restroom. You’ll avoid inflicting the meltdown on others. Your parenting skills won’t be on display, and Junior will able to settle down.
Ignore the behavior. If you’ve done all you can and the tantrum continues, place your toddler in a safe setting and tune her out. Eventually she’ll get over it.
Be patient. No parent enjoys meltdowns. Still, they’re a normal stage of development. Keep them in perspective. They won’t last forever.