Dealing with toddler meltdowns: a life-changing idea

Toddler tantrums - what's the best strategy for dealing with them, with as few tears as possible from them...and you? Here's Rachel from Make a Long Story Short:

When you think about it, there are lots of ways toddlers are like drunk people. No spatial awareness, a tendency to pee in the laundry pile, and a serious hankering for midnight Cheerios. And then there’s the emotions spilling out every which way you look. Lots and lots of emotions.

One of the things I love about life with toddlers is the fact that they run through a world in vivid technicolour. My two boys are always excited, or furious, or heartbreakingly sad, and there seems to be very little in between. WHAT IS THIS, I can see them thinking. THIS BOOKCASE IS THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE BOOKCASES. OH LOOK, AN AMAZING PIECE OF FLUFF. There’s a dark side to all of this feeling, though, and Yoda can explain it best:

Tesco…leads to frustration

Frustration…leads to anger

Anger…leads to hate hysterical sobbing in the cereal aisle. *swish of lightsaber*

The problem is that big emotions – fear, frustration, sadness – are hard enough for adults to grasp, let alone tiny people meeting them for the first time. So it comes out in tantrums and wild overreactions. Today, my dear almost-three-year-old shouted and cried for fifteen minutes because he couldn’t believe it was Thursday, not Friday (hey, we’ve all been there). Once he sobbed because drawing on the kitchen cupboards is ‘a naughty sing to do’ (he brought it up, not me). Then there was another time he cried about grapes. Just because grapes. Yes, I don’t know either.

I’m not saying it’s a picnic, dealing with this as a parent. Actually it’s frustrating, annoying, and extremely embarrassing in public. But on the other hand: man, I get it. Do you know how long I stayed under a duvet after [ANCIENT SPOILER] Sirius Black died in Harry Potter? No amount of ice cream and sobbing could heal that wound. These days I lose patience and raise my voice far more often than I’d like. If I struggle to keep myself under control all the time, how can I expect my toddlers to do the same? They don’t have logic, and they definitely don’t have Twitter.

Still, one of the most useful things I ever, ever read about parenting toddlers involved this business of emotion. I can’t now remember where I read it*, but it’s a life-changer, and so I herewith pass it onto you, you marvellous toddler parent:

Name the emotion. Express sympathy. Remind them of your expectations.

So, mid-tantrum, you’d say something like:

‘You’re feeling cross and sad because you don’t want to go home yet. Is that right? Would you like a hug? [Then, during hug -] When we feel cross and sad, we talk about it with words. We don’t shout or throw things. Do you have something you need to say to Mummy?’

I don’t believe in magic solutions for children, because every child is different. But I tell you what: most of the time, this really works with mine. Just naming the emotion in front of him seems to validate it, making it manageable for him. From his perspective, I’m recognising that being cross is hard, but reinforcing the fact that chucking stuff across the room isn’t an acceptable way to express crossness. It wasn’t long before he started telling me he was ‘feeling a bit sad’ himself, and while he still has plenty of wild-man moments, I’ve noticed a huge difference.

I think an awful lot about raising boys with healthy emotional lives. Knowing what emotions feel like and how best to express them feels like a good place to start. Now, can we finally fix how I feel about poor old Sirius Black?

*Was this your theory? Please tell me, because I’d love to credit you, and I also owe you a huge shipment of chocolate biscuits.

Rachel blogs over at Make a Long Story Short, about life as mum to two boys. She's also a copywriter and editor.

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