Is your toddler having tantrums and meltdowns? Did you know there is a difference between the two? Read on to find out how to contain your toddler’s rage the easy and loving way.
It started with my head banging toddler
When Pubescent Snarky son was a tiny toddler, he developed a habit of smacking his head on things when he didn’t get his way. He didn’t go easy either- he would leave knots and bruises on his forehead. He would use whatever object was close by (usually the hardwood floor) to bang his forehead on until I would swoop in, pick him up, and beg him to stop.
At his well visit, the pediatrician asked what happened to his forehead, and I gave him the run down of how my toddler was psychotic and bashing his head on things. He just looked at me and said, “Stop paying attention to it.” He told me that my son would stop knocking himself silly if I would quit reacting to it. So, we went home and waited…
I had the opportunity to ignore one of my son’s fits the very same day. He sat down on the hardwood and started to hit his head on the floor. I walked into the other room. He hit his head, stopped to see if I was looking, gave it another very light tap because there was no mama to get upset about it, and then quit. It was MAGIC. This scenario played out maybe three more times, and we never saw the behavior again.
Now I am not saying that if you ignore a fit, you will fix tantrums instantly, but it is the best place to start.
Toddler Tantrums 101
A tantrum is a fit or performance thrown by a toddler in an effort to get their way. This is not the same as a meltdown, which we will talk about later in this post. The best way to decide if your child is throwing a tantrum or having a meltdown is this: if you give your child what they are seeking, will it stop? If the answer is yes, you have a tantrum.
Like all good actors, toddlers need an audience to perform at their best. You absolutely must take away the audience. If your toddler is in a safe spot, just walk away. If you need to, pick up your child and place him in his crib first.
No need to say anything, but if you want to you can say something like, “Mommy will talk to you when you are calm.” Even the youngest toddlers, will pick up on this quickly. Do not try to stay and reason. Do not keep telling them that you are ignoring their fit. Just ignore it. Walk away.
The Golden Rule of Tantrums
I cannot stress this enough: unless you love tantrums, and want more of them, NEVER REWARD A FIT.
Do not reward a fit with attention, and definitely do not reward it with whatever the fit thrower is seeking.
If there were a button that gave you five dollars every time you pushed it, would you keep pushing it? Umm…yeah! What if it gave you a hundred dollars if you pushed it and held it down for a while? You’d push that button all day long. That is same thing as rewarding a tantrum. If tantrums pay, then your child will use them as often as possible.
When it comes to kids, let your “no” be your “no” and your “yes” be your “yes”. Once it is out of your mouth, it is written in stone. So choose wisely.
Say yes when you can. It is frustrating being a little person with no control over your life. Try not to wear out the word “no”, and you can head off many tantrums before they start.
What about a meltdown?
Meltdowns are different in that they happen when your toddler has lost all control. During a tantrum, a child is very much in control. That is why it stops instantly when you give them what they want. A child having a meltdown is probably tired, hungry, sick, worn out from shopping all day, or just can’t take anymore.
A meltdown usually involves a lot more real crying and tears, and is easier to be sympathetic to. The kid who is falling apart over every little thing, is melting down.
At our house we have “milk and a meltdown”. Everyone loses control sometimes, but we cannot disturb the peace of everyone in the house by screaming, crying, and making everyone miserable. So when one of our children loses it, we gently guide them to their bedroom. We give them a sippy of milk, their blanket or stuffed animal, and a book.
We will put them on their bed and tell them something like, “I know you are really upset. Just rest for a few minutes, and you can come out when you feel better.” I usually offer more words to the meltdown child than I would a fit pitching child because I want to be sure they know I am empathetic.
It is okay to be upset. It just isn’t okay to bring the house down with wailing. That being said, don’t try to reason with them. A kid who has lost it emotionally is not capable of hearing what you have to say.
I have used this with all four of my children and it works great. I started it at 18 months with my youngest, and now she will ask for her crib and a book when she is overwhelmed.
What about when you are in public and your child loses it?
Sadly, you still have to ignore a tantrum in public. You will most likely get dirty looks, but rewarding a fit will result in more of the same. Once your child realizes that being in public is not your Achilles heel, they will stop having tantrums in public as well.
My youngest tried to throw a fit to get out of the shopping cart while I was grocery shopping. I was covered in sweat and about to lose my marbles by the time we got to the checkout, but we made it. The next time, she didn’t bother.
I found it helped me feel less embarrassed to talk to my daughter when someone was giving us stink eye. I would say, “I’m sorry, but you have to sit in the cart even if you throw a fit.” At least in my head I was making bystanders aware of my stance.
Always try to prevent tantrums and meltdowns
Consider your child’s meal and nap schedule when making plans. Pushing a child to a later lunch or nap can be a HUGE trigger. Bring snacks when you are out and about. Pack entertainment when you might have to wait for a long time. Try not to schedule things for when your child should be napping. An overtired child is a recipe for disaster.
Never give up
Always be consistent. When your child knows what to expect from you, they can stop testing your boundaries. It only takes rewarding a tantrum one time for you to lose all of your progress. So don’t give up! I know it is tough, but this too shall pass.