3 Year Old Meltdowns – Toddler Temper Tantrums

Is it really “The Terrible Two’s”?  Or could it be that this is the first time that parents really have to step up to ‘parent’ their child and they just don’t know what to do?  Up until about the age of 18 months, parents have been mostly caregivers.  They’ve kept their children safe, protected them from harm, fed them, clothed and nurtured them.  They’ve met their most basic needs – not something that most people need to be taught to do.  But what do you do when you’re beautiful little angel starts to have an opinion about something that’s different from yours?  And what do you do when that little angel starts to push back?

So your child is having a meltdown. What do you do? The first thing to do is approach the situation and the child with a calm yet empathetic demeanor. Yes, I realize when you kid is screaming to the top of their lungs and flinging themselves on the floor, it’s really, really hard not to lose your shit, but try. You want to show them that you care without appearing to be controlling. The second they think you’re trying to “control” them, it’s an all out war! Talk to them in a calm voice and let them know that you love them and you care about their feelings. If at all possible hug your child, but if they are resisting the hugs, do not force it! Remember these are tiny little human beings who get overloaded with emotions and they have yet to figure out what to do with these feelings! These emotions are all bundled up inside and they have to come out somewhere. 

The Terrible Twos

The Temper Tantrum – It’s one of the reasons those years are so “affectionately” called “The Terrible Twos.” A tantrum can be anything from whining and crying to screaming, kicking, hitting, and sometimes kids will even hold their breath or potty on the floor!  These kinds of outbursts are equally common in boys and girls and usually occur between the ages of 1 and 3.  They’re a normal part of a development and don’t have to be seen as something bad or negative.  How you respond to the outburst is where the problem lies and will largely determine whether they increase or decrease.

So What Happened To Your Little Angel?

So what happened to your little angel?? As difficult as the terrible twos are for you, they’re even more frustrating for your child. Not only is your little one exploring the world around him in a whole new way—and becoming increasingly involved in it—he’s also learning a brand new language. Every day brings brand new things to him that he’s never encountered before – new sights, new sounds, new skills and especially new emotions.  That’s a lot for even the most confident adult to manage!  Think about that – can you imagine if every single day you were bombarded with that many new things that you’d never encountered before?  Oh, my gosh – makes me tired just thinking about it!  He needs your help to find his way and figure it all out as he becomes more independent.  The problem here is, that he doesn’t yet know that he needs your help, let alone how to communicate it!  Toddlers are just trying to master their world and when they aren’t able to accomplish a task, they turn to one of the only tools at their disposal for venting frustration — a tantrum.

Independence And Control

Another thing that’s happening developmentally for your child in his toddler years, is his increasing need for independence and some control over his environment — more than he’s probably capable of handling. So there you have it, this creates the perfect condition for power struggles between parent and child.  When your child thinks “I can do it myself” or “I want it, give it to me”, only to discover that they can’t do it and can’t have everything they want, the stage is perfectly set for a tantrum!

Also, Toddlers are just beginning to acquire basic language skills. They generally understand more than they can express. Imagine not being able to communicate your needs to someone — extremely frustrating! If your toddler could tell you what he really needed, he might say something like this:

Mom, Dad, I know you guys are really frustrated with me right now, and I know it’s overwhelming, but I’m just trying to let you know that even though I’m just a toddler, I need to be understood, and I need to be allowed to have a say in my life.

Since you don’t ‘get it’ and I don’t have the words to say it, all I can do is whine, refuse to cooperate, act helpless and throw tantrums. I’m obviously not getting through to you so I’ll just keep it up – louder and more often. But I sure do wish you would figure me out so I could stop acting like this.

There’s a lot going on with your toddler right now, but as his language skills improve, you’ll notice that the tantrums will tend to decrease.   As his parent, you can help him feel loved and empowered, first by understanding what’s going on with him and second by following a few simple guidelines to help him grow during these important learning years:

Pay attention to your child, and not just when he’s doing something wrong!

Make sure your child isn’t acting up just because he isn’t getting enough attention. To a child, negative attention (a parent’s response to a tantrum) is better than no attention at all. They know they have your undivided attention when they throw a fit – especially in public. So make sure that you establish a habit of catching your child being good. Reward him with your attention for his positive behavior – that’s what he really wants.

It may sound like a little thing, but taking time once or twice every single day to play or read or just talk with your child, giving him your undivided attention, means he won’t have to whine or act out for it. And by the way, he can tell when you’re only ‘half-there’ so put your phone away! Consider it an investment—you’ll get that time back tenfold in good behavior.

Let them have some control over their life.

You’ve been calling all the shots up until now: Would it really hurt anything if they got to choose whether to wear the tennis shoes or the beach shoes, eat eggs or cereal, or whether to use the Spiderman or the Toystory toothpaste?”  By offering a choice, there’s a very good chance that you can put an end to almost all power struggles.  And keep off-limits objects out of sight and out of reach as often as possible to make struggles less likely to develop over them.

Consider your child’s request carefully when he asks for something. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn’t. Choose your battles carefully and accommodate when you can. Every time you let your child make a decision, he feels like he has more control over his life.  When he is given this kind of positive power, he won’t feel the need to throw tantrums or refuse to cooperate to get the control he’s constantly looking for.

Let your kids show you how capable they are by letting them help

They know they’re growing up and they want to do “grown-up” things. Believe it or not, there are many things your toddler can do to help you.  He simply needs you to teach him how to do them. With a little instruction, not only will you get some help feeding the dog, or wiping off the counters, you’ll also be empowering your child with a strong sense of independence.  Resist wanting to do everything for him.  Encouraging him to help and praising his efforts will help him feel important and valuable to you.

Set the stage for success

When kids are playing or trying to master a new task, offer age-appropriate toys and games. Start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.

And know your child’s limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it’s not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand.

Most importantly NEVER give in to the tantrum!

When he loses it because you dragged him all over creation and he missed his nap, then he might need some serious comforting. But when he’s throwing a fit because he didn’t get his way, he’s just trying to make you give in. If he’s tried it once and it worked, he’ll keep doing it! But once he knows he’s not going to get attention and power from his tantrums, he’ll stop. It’s no fun having a tantrum if there’s no audience!

Remember, your child is just trying to be understood! He may not have a have a good way to tell you that he’s tired, or that his shoes are pinching his feet, or that he’s scared of something he saw on TV, or that he saw a really cool truck back there and he want s to stop and see it. Be patient with him. And when you can’t understand your toddler, remember to stay calm, get down on his level and try a few different strategies to uncover the hidden message (pointing, for instance). The more you can work to understand his verbal and nonverbal cues, the more confident and even-keeled your child will be, and the less he’ll need to whine and carry on to get your help or attention It doesn’t have to be ‘The Terrible Two’s”.  Now that you understand what’s going on with your toddler, you can help lessen his frustration and give him a little more control of his life which will lead to a sense of independence, which will ultimately mean fewer tantrums, which makes for a happier toddler AND happier parents!


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