Artist: Michele Mildenberg

All eyes are on you as you watch your child flail on the floor. You freeze for a moment, not quite sure what to do next. I’ve been there a few times, but the first time it happened, a strange mix of humiliation and annoyance clouded my judgment. I forgot how to parent my kid for a millisecond. The next thing I knew, I had picked up my two-year-old off the floor with one arm and hurried out of the store, pushing his stroller with my other hand. I was blindsided.

Tantrums and meltdowns tend to be used interchangeably when people talk about them because the end result looks the same, but the causes are different. Tantrums happen because toddlers don’t yet have the communication skills or emotional regulation to handle their frustrations. In contrast, meltdowns are a reaction to feeling overwhelmed due to an overload of the senses.

I'm no stranger to toddler tantrums. When you mix in a very independent child, a whole heap of the headstrong trait inherited from both parents and toddler development, it's bound to happen. "Nooooooo! I do it by ma sef!” was a constant refrain.

How did I manage this? I gave my toddlers options—for meals, stories and even which clothes they wanted. Toddlers love control, but, of course, they don’t get much say in their day-to-day lives, which is why low-stakes situations are the ideal time to turn over the reins. “Tomato pasta or tuna pasta? This still gives them a choice, and they feel in control," says parent consultant Auntie K.

I also gave them opportunities to show off their skills and independence. Little ones are thrilled to show you what they are capable of. Maybe they help out in the kitchen: While you are baking, they can help scoop, pour and count. They can help tidy up and even assist you with the laundry. My son used to enjoy putting clothes into different piles for me.

It's also a fantastic idea to give children a heads up so they knew what to expect. Letting them have a rough idea of how the day will look  ("We are doing X now; we'll be doing Y next") will go a long way. Even if they are having a great time and don’t want to stop, because they have been pre-warned, they are less likely to throw a tantrum. If they do lose it, it’s essential to take them somewhere quiet (if possible) to validate their feelings. Responding with empathy yet being consistent with your boundaries is vital. For example, “Honey, I know you feel sad that we can’t stay longer at the park. We have a lot to do today, but we can come back another day.” Doing this makes them feel heard and understood.

As I mentioned earlier, meltdowns aren't the same issue, and how you handle them should differ slightly. First, you need to figure out what the triggers were. Were they hungry? Were they tired? Overstimulated? Once you figure out the why, you will be in a better place to preempt it next time.

  • Snacks, snacks, snacks: Make sure your toddler is adequately fueled throughout the day. Spikes in blood sugar are not conducive to a well-regulated tot.
  • Make time for rest: Life can get hectic without us even noticing. I make sure there are rest days in my toddler’s schedule. Days when we don’t have a million errands to run and can simply hang around the house.
  • Fresh air: Running around outside is a great way to regulate not only your toddler's mood, but yours as well. My son always does better if he has had some time outside to burn off all that energy.
  • If in doubt, add water: There are days when you’ve tried everything, and your child is still out of sorts. Fill the tub, kiddie pool or even their water table and let them have a good play! I don’t know what it is about water play that resets people, but it does!
  • And finally, use books to explore emotions: Doing this helps children learn to put a name to how they are feeling. Auntie K agrees: “Have lots of books, puzzles and games that help explain emotions and allow you to talk about feelings and teach empathy.”

I hope the strategies above help you feel more confident and will hopefully reduce the frequency of tantrums or meltdowns your toddler has. Remember to stay calm, take a deep breath and you will both be fine.

—Lucy Benton

Lucy Benton is a freelance writer from the UK. When not writing, She can be found engaging in Landscape Photography, which pairs well with her love of walking and being in nature. She tweets sporadically at @LucyBwrites. Visit her online at lucybentonwrites.com.

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