Tantrums v.s. Meltdowns

Being a toddler is hard. The world is a big, beautiful place that is also often challenging, exhausting, scary, or overwhelming. This whole growing up thing, learning to talk, learning to communicate what you want, heck just working out what you want in the first place, can all be a bit much sometimes.

It’s not always easy to make the right choices, especially when you’re largely governed by your ‘hot’ limbic system rather than your ‘cool’ cerebral cortex.  You are in effect largely governed by your lizard brain so it can seem really unreasonable when your parents don’t expect you to act like a dinosaur at least some of the time.

I’m lucky that my 2 year old isn’t particularly prone to tantrums. I work at having consistent and enforced boundaries at home – like no snack foods at dinner time, no drawing things (like felts or chalk) in the lounge, no eating on the couch – and I think this helps. Sometimes I’m enforcing these through gritted teeth and sometimes I’m thinking longingly of how I’d really like to sit down and relax on the couch with a cup of tea and a scone but I can’t because my daughter’s awake (so in the kitchen for me!).  This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have tantrums because she does. She did not want scrambled eggs with veggies one night last week and was very put out that I wouldn’t let her have a muesli bar for dinner; in the end she decided that she’d rather have bread & butter (the consistent alternative to dinner) rather than eat something she’d normally have liked. It took a while but I knew that her tantrum was her acting out to try and get what she wanted and to express her displeasure for the general unfairness of it all; I also knew that she was hardly starving and that if she was actually really hungry then she’d eat (or at least try) what was being offered.

Tantrums are part and parcel of raising a toddler. They are an outburst to try and get something they perceive themselves as wanting or needing and they may even stop in the middle of one to check that you’re still watching! Other times it’s because their emotions are so big that they don’t know how else to express them. To tame tantrums there’s no point yelling at them or trying to use logic; it’s counter-productive and, honestly, when you’re feeling really pissed off about something do you really want someone calmly and logically explaining to you all the reasons why you shouldn’t be pissed off?

Let them know that you’re listening and acknowledge what they want / are feeling but without giving in; i.e. “You want my attention. I can see you want my attention. As soon as I’ve finished doing the dishes you can have my full attention and choose what we do next.”, or “Lollipop. You want the lollipop. Lollipops are yummy. I can see you really want the lollipop. It can feel really frustrating when we can’t have everything we want.” Depending on the circumstances you can either carry on with what you’re doing, wait it out with them, or remove them to a different location (i.e. we’ve all had at least one nightmare supermarket experience!). It is important to be aware of your own expectations, the boundaries/rules that you’ve set and how you’ve communicated these to your children, what behaviour you’ve modelled, and what their expectations are from prior experiences; i.e. if you always give in and buy candy at the supermarket then they’re going to keep pushing because they won’t understand why this visit is any different.

Meltdowns, on the other hand, are a feeling of being overwhelmed and unlike a tantrum there is a loss of control. Meltdowns can be frightening for kids because they often can’t stop them. They might be triggered by a tantrum, or having too many things to think about, or being somewhere that feels really busy to them, or they may be triggered by something small and incidental that opens up a gateway to a whole heap of pent-up subconscious emotion. For instance, my daughter’s meltdown isn’t really about not having a Peppa Pig book read for the 5th time, it’s really about the fact that the cot got sold last week and now she’s in a toddler bed that she really likes but it’s still different and new to her and the freedom of being able to get in & out is both awesome and scary.

Meltdowns are a bit like a force of nature where you just have to ride out the crisis in a safe place. They often end in one of two ways, either they simply exhaust themselves (or become overwhelmed by excessively high cortisol levels), or they are able to de-escalate because of a change in sensory input. The best thing you can do is to make sure that they are in a quiet safe place and provide a calm, reassuring presence for your child.

For my daughter, she has stamina. I’m telling you she could grow up to be an opera singer one day. Her meltdowns can be epic and long…and loud. She can go for anywhere from an hour to 2.5 hours. Fortunately they’re not hugely frequent and often they’re a sign of something else going on. She’s had two in the last 24 hours and she’s also been uncharacteristically unhappy about wearing clothes for that same period.  Late this morning she took her shirt off again and she’s had hives start to appear. “Ah ha!” I think, an explanation beyond just “She’s 2?” After racking my brain to think of everything she’s eaten in the last 48 hours and trying to find food labels in the fridge (or rubbish bin – such fun!) I discovered that a couple of things had very trace amounts of soy in them; guess that backs up the suspected soy allergy and means I have to remember to be extra vigilant while we continue trialing a soy exclusion diet.

Those meltdowns are exhausting though. When you’re a sole parent it’s not even like you can tag team with your partner and take turns sitting through it. It’s also heart wrenching because they are so desperately unhappy. I’m learning to see the patterns in her meltdowns though; it’s a bit like being a ship captain and learning the ebbs and flows of a particularly treacherous piece of coastline. She won’t let me touch her during the worst of it, not until she’s expended enough energy to want the help calming down. Last night I simply lay on the floor near her (but not too near! she made that abundantly clear) and was quietly present in solidarity; sometimes I’d say “I’m here, I’m with you” or “I love you, I’m here”.  Sometimes I took a break and went to cook her a simple dinner to offer her, or to get a glass of water, or to do the dishes. Eventually I got tired of lying on the carpet and carried her to my bed (with all the curtains closed so it was dark). The meltdown continued but at least it was more comfortable! Sometimes I write shopping lists in my head or try random exercises like trying to work out all the prime numbers up to 100. I’ve tried reading sometimes but I can’t concentrate. She finally exhausted herself enough to cry in my arms, and then just to snuggle, and then eventually we were through the storm and the sun came out (though skies were still a bit cloudy) and we were able to move back to the lounge and read her dinosaurs a story.

One writer suggested that when dealing with her kids tantrums, and meltdowns, and general nagging/whining, she would imagine herself as stoically putting on a superhero costume like armour, or being a CEO managing staff. Be kind, be firm, be consistent, and remember that this too shall pass!



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