If you are — or recently were — the parent of a toddler, you know that there is no such thing as a lazy weekend afternoon. There is no lounging on the couch with a good book while in the company of your child. There are no marathons of your favorite show on Netflix. Instead there is playtime with bubbles and repeat reads of "insert the name of your child's favorite book of the week". Sometimes you just can't predict the direction an activity will take. Especially when your toddler blindsides you and insists on doing something herself. This often leads to your child doing something potentially dangerous that puts an abrupt halt to the activity which in turn leads to a downward spiral and the mother of all things — a meltdown.
Case in point, my husband and I were hanging in our yard with our young toddler one Summer weekend afternoon. My daughter and I went inside to grab something and she spotted the yellow bubble wand purchased before she had entered the "do it myself" phase. I had been hesitant in taking it out because I didn't want to deal with her insisting on moving the wand in and out of the bubble stick herself and the resulting sticky mess. But I felt bad because she really wanted to play with it, plus I knew it could help her develop her motor skills. I decided to take it out and off we went into the yard to blow bubbles. Almost immediately my daughter took the bubble wand and the part with the solution and was attempting the process herself. Not long after that she came very close to drinking the bubble solution. The word "no" came flying out of our mouths, but that didn't stop her from trying to take a sip again. So we took the bubbles away and the following ensued: screaming and the full-body shaking that happens during a toddler meltdown when something doesn't go the toddler's way. And my child knows how to stomp her feet, thanks to Sesame Street, so while she balled out tears and shook her whole body in anger, she also stomped her feet.
This reaction to our effort aimed at keeping her safe backfired in our faces. It made us feel like bad parents and halted us in our tracks. It felt like the two-minute or so freak out was going in slow motion. She had a few tantrums before — mostly when we were trying to get her to use the pacifier less — but this was a full-blown toddler tantrum because our daughter wanted something potentially harmful and we had no clue how to respond.
My baby quickly went from being an infant to a toddler in a matter of what seemed like days. Pictures and videos from just a few months before showed an easy-going little one so dependent on us as parents. She discovered how to do things herself and became fiercely independent, yet lacked an understanding of danger.
My friends whose children are in the toddler stage did not forewarn me of this and how to react when such a moment turned sour. There have been many other tantrums since this first major one. Through each, I am learning how to nip such an event in the bud before it even begins, and if it becomes inevitable, how to respond.
The most important lesson I've learned while combating meltdowns is the importance of sticking to my guns and not giving in. If my daughter spots something she wants, but I know I will have to take it away at a moment in the very near future, it is better to not give it to her at all because the resulting removal of the object will be worse than not giving it to her in the first place. I recently let my little one hold a tube of cream while I was changing her diaper, and she only wanted to hold it and open and close the cap and even tried putting it in her mouth. If I let her hold it after I was done changing her, she would have continued doing that, so I asked her to help me put it away. That did not go over well — a 10 minute tantrum ensued! We could have avoided that whole scene if I would have not given her the tube to hold in the first place.
Which brings me to the second lesson I have learned about how to avoid tantrums — you have to think and act quickly. Know your toddler and spot potential tantrum-causing situations to try to avoid them altogether. Look at what has caused recent tantrums and see how you can do things differently next time. I usually put my daughter's sneakers on while she is still eating breakfast in her highchair, but one recent morning I decided to attempt to put them on after I took her out. I sat her on my lap and she began squirming all over. She was so insistent about not putting her sneakers on that she peeled herself to the floor and started whining. I pulled objects out of my bag for her to hold, but none distracted her. I finally succeeded, but learned from this that it may just be easier to put her sneakers on while she is already occupied.
Most importantly, it has become clear to me that it is essential to be consistent with a child in order to set clear rules and boundaries. If you are a sucker and give in halfway through to that sweet little face, your child will learn that they will get their way by acting out. Decide what your rules are, spot potential meltdowns, and stick to your guns.
When you find yourself in the moment, stay calm and understand what your child is going through even though the moment may be trying for you, too. If you show your emotions, you may make the situation worse, so disconnect or try to give your child a big, firm hug to make him or her feel better and move on. You could try to distract him or her with something else he or she may like or want to do. Or you could just let him or her get all his or her emotions out and let the moment pass.
It is inevitable — meltdowns will happen as your toddler learns and grows. As a parent, you will learn from each one and build your own toolkit of tantrum avoidance and management tips and tricks.