Toddlers: Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Just yesterday, my 2-year-old daughter came to me with a large block and her little toy dinosaur. She set the block down on the couch next to me, then was touching the dinosaur’s mouth to the brick, starting to cry, and telling me out of frustration, “can’t do it! Can’t do it!” I looked at the brick and the dinosaur, then I looked at her, then back at the brick and dinosaur, and I could not for the life of me figure out what she was trying to do! I asked her, “Bailey, what is it that you can’t do? What are you trying to do?” She only became more frustrated, then fell into a complete meltdown.

What is a parent to do when this happens? Or, when it is a temper tantrum? What about the toddler who is showing aggressive behavior?

All toddlers have meltdowns and tantrums, which usually peak between 18 and 24 months but can absolutely happen before and after those ages. Toddlers are so full of emotion, and do not have the skills to control them yet; they do not have the full vocabulary to communicate their feelings and needs. They need us to teach and show them how to handle their big emotions, and to help keep them from getting to that point.

Positive Discipline
Let’s focus on positive discipline; children and adults do better when they feel better.

Positive discipline is about teaching, encouraging, communicating, and understanding – not about punishing.

Prevention, Distraction, and Redirection
Preventing a meltdown, tantrum, or aggressive behavior from happening would be the ideal way to handle the behaviors. For example; if you are in the kitchen making dinner and you hear your child in the other room playing with her toys, noticing some grunting as she is trying to stack the blocks that keep falling down, you may know that she is near her breaking point, so you can go in and redirect her to some other toys or activities.

Another example is if you have two kids playing, and they are starting to “argue” over a toy. You can go in and distract them with a different activity. Your toddler is probably still too young to understand your explanation if you try fixing her current situation, so the best solution here is distraction and redirection.

Acknowledge Feelings
If your toddler reaches that meltdown or tantrum, first try getting down on her level, and communicating with her with mutual respect; acknowledge and validate her feelings. She will not be able to listen to you while she is screaming, but she will probably notice that you are there, kneeling next to her and that you said to her, “you are mad,” or, “you are so frustrated.” Once she has had a moment to notice you, she will probably calm down a little, and you can validate her feelings more, such as, “you really wanted the cookie, and you are so mad that you are not getting one. It must be so frustrating for you! I have an idea, let’s go get some crayons and color a picture.” Another option here is to gently ignore the tantrum; if she is safe, allowing her to have the tantrum while gently ignoring it will allow her to learn to sort out her feelings herself and lead to long term growth.

If it is a thing that she was crying over, something you told her she could not have, it is important to not reward a meltdown or tantrum by giving that thing to her just after. She may then learn that tantrums get her what she wants. Distract her with something else after you acknowledged her feelings.

If it is a meltdown because she is frustrated that she could not figure something out, like getting her shoe on, still get down to her level, acknowledge that she is frustrated, then turn it into a learning experience; show her how to put her shoe on, help her put her shoe on, then let her practice. If she starts getting overly frustrated again, get creative: go find a shoe that you know she can put on, so she can feel a sense of accomplishment, then try the difficult shoe again next time. This is also a great opportunity to show her how to handle some of those frustrations. You can tell her that when she gets very frustrated, try taking a deep breath, then practice taking some deep breaths with her and try to verbalize feelings.

The same methods apply for aggression, but it is important not to react back with aggression yourself. Demonstrate what you do when you are angry or frustrated, and let her practice too. Guide your child through the process of aggressive feelings. Instead of a time out, give the child a chance to practice doing the right thing. Let this be a learning moment for your child. If you do decide to do a time out, the rule is, 1 minute per year of age.

Tips for keeping your toddler happy and preventing tantrums

Spend one on one time with each of your children every day.

Encourage efforts with excitement and help him try again.

  • Avoid tantrum triggers
  • Is he tired?
  • Is he hungry?
  • Is he bored?
  • Does he just need attention?

Sometimes, he may just need a good hug.

Going back to the story of my daughter with the large block and dinosaur… When my husband got home, I told him about her meltdown. He knew right away, “oh, she was just trying to feed her dinosaur. She feeds her dinosaurs all day!” So, she was upset because the block wasn’t coming apart for her dinosaur to eat. Don’t you just love the imaginations of our little ones!

If you would love to read more about dealing with toddler meltdowns, tantrums, and aggression, two of my favorite books on this subject are The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D., and No-Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegal, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

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