How to manage those meltdown moments
There’s nothing more embarrassing than your toddler having a tantrum in the supermarket. Here’s expert advice on how to deal with those meltdown moments.
At a glance
- Your little one's meltdown is a cry for attention
- Don't give in or give them any attention and it will soon die down
- Learn to spot your children's triggers and you can then try to avoid them
It’s not easy being two. You want to be independent, but you can’t quite manage that zip; you want juice but mum says it’s teatime; you want to explain something but just don’t have the words yet. The result? A tantrum: screaming, crying, shouting, kicking, throwing things – and a very embarrassed mum if you’re out in public.
Dealing with tantrums is part and parcel of being the parent of a two-year-old. Or a three-year-old, as tantrums often continue until a child is nearer four.
Dealing with a tantrum
The best way to deal with a tantrum is to stay calm and ignore it, which is obviously a lot easier to say than do, especially if you’re in a public place!
Your toddler’s meltdown is a cry for attention, so if you can absolutely refuse to give any attention – including shouting or negotiating – then it will die down more quickly. Stay calm and carry on with what you were doing – chatting to a friend, shopping or whatever – and check to make sure your little one is safe every couple of minutes.
Ignoring your child is very hard, but if you answer back or smack them, you are giving them the attention they are demanding, advises the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Early stage tantrum
In the early stages of a tantrum, you can often divert their attention (‘oh look, there’s a ladybird!’) which can take their mind off the impending explosion. And because a toddler’s attention span is so short, they may well have forgotten that tantrum trigger within a few seconds.
Full flow tantrum
But when they’re in full flow, distraction is unlikely to work. Stay outwardly calm, ignore them and wait for it to pass.
Never give in
It’s really important never to give in to the demand that caused the tantrum as it will teach them that having a meltdown gets you what you want. That’s a recipe for more tantrums.
It’s tempting in the supermarket to say ‘ok, ok, I’ll buy those sweets if you’ll just stop crying and screaming’ just to stop the embarrassment, but stand firm. You may think others are judging you for having a screaming toddler, but they are probably just relieved they've passed that stage or have left their kids at home. Most likely they’ll admire your refusal to give in.
Once the tantrum is over
When your child begins to calm down, talk to them in a low voice, advises family psychologist Linda Blair. Don’t try to pick them up (unless they are in danger) and reassure your child that they will be fine. She says: “Naming the emotion can also help here. Say, ‘I know you’re angry/upset because X happened, but you’re okay, we’ll sort it out. Mummy is here’.”
Don’t try negotiating or reasoning – there’s no point. And don’t punish them after a tantrum, either: move swiftly on and give them lots of positive attention as soon as it’s over, without referring to the tantrum. Give your toddler your full attention and talk to them warmly as if nothing has happened. If you can find ways to notice and reward good behaviour, your little one is more likely to stay calm for longer.
How to avoid a tantrum
The best way to deal with a tantrum is to avoid it in the first place – sometimes easier said than done.
- Are they hungry or tired? This can tip some toddlers into a meltdown, especially if they can’t tell you what they feel.
- Try not to rush them all the time, especially when trying to leave the house in the morning. This can stress them out and start a tantrum. Start preparations 10 minutes earlier if you find you’re always running late.
- Are you saying ‘no’ a lot? Sometimes we have to say no (‘no TV now, it’s bedtime’) but check if you’re saying it as an automatic response to their requests because it makes your life easier. If there isn't a good reason for saying no (‘can I do finger painting?’), find ways to say yes sometimes.
- Your toddler is desperate for some control over their life, so give them a choice within a choice. So, rather than saying ‘hold my hand when we’re crossing the road please’, say ‘would you like to hold my hand or the buggy?’
- Learn to spot your child’s triggers. Some children have tantrums when they feel anxious, if they’re worried you’re leaving without them, or if their coat zip isn'tquite pulled up to the right level. Deal with the underlying problem to avoid the tantrum.