How to Help a Toddler or Child Having a Meltdown

Handle meltdowns and even prevent them with these simple tips!

Published January 31, 2023
Little girl crying at the restaurant

The terrible twos, the treacherous threes, and the ferocious fours. This is the time when toddlers discover their emotions, opinions, and fears. It's also when toddler meltdowns arise. How do you help a child having a meltdown? And how do you prevent them altogether? These tips and tricks can help make these moments much more manageable.

How to Help a Child Having a Meltdown

As your toddler transitions into their meltdown stage, use these techniques to help calm them.

Implement Active Listening

Everyone wants to feel seen and heard. Active listening is a form of communication that prioritizes these needs. When your toddler is having a meltdown, stop what you're doing and remove any distractions. Turn off the television, turn down the radio in the car, and ask other siblings to be quiet while you address this issue.

Then, get down on their level. This means kneeling on the floor so that you're at eye level with your child. Calmly ask them what's wrong and then let them have the floor. Don't interrupt until they're done. If they are still non-verbal, then ask them yes and no questions so that they can give you an idea of the problem. While this exchange is going on, maintain eye contact, nod, and show genuine concern. Once you determine the cause of your child's meltdown, acknowledge their feelings and provide potential solutions.

Consider Potential Triggers

When a baby cries, parents automatically question whether the baby is dry, hungry, too hot, or too cold. Why does this inclination suddenly stop once they become a toddler? When a tantrum or meltdown is occurring, ask yourself:

  • Could they be hungry?
  • Are they wet?
  • Is it close to a nap time?
  • Did they sleep well last night?
  • Has it been an overwhelming day? (e.g. they went to school, saw relatives, exerted a lot of energy, etc)
  • Have they not received enough attention?
  • Do they feel rushed?
  • Are they overwhelmed?
  • Do they feel sick?

Children don't always recognize why they're upset. It's a parent's job to decipher the problem and provide potential solutions.

Change Your Surroundings

If your toddler is having a meltdown, it could be because of a sensory overload. The best way to address this trigger is to simply go somewhere else. While this can be inconvenient at times, it's important to remember that toddlers are more sensitive to certain stimuli, like loud noises, bright lights, or certain types of touch (for example, their ears being examined at the doctor). This can make noisy shopping malls, crowded grocery stores, and doctor's offices prime places for these outbursts to occur. Thus, grab what you need and get out in a timely fashion, especially if it's close to a nap or meal time.

Create a Diversion

The magic behind any trick always lies in the distraction that's provided by the magician's assistant. The same premise applies to stopping a tantrum. If you want to stop the outburst, then find creative ways to draw their attention away from whatever is upsetting them. Sing a song, ask if they want to play a game with you, or start acting silly! Fidget toys can also be a great solution in these situations because they lower stress and provide focused distraction.

Correct Their Actions

What are they doing wrong? You and I know that hitting and throwing toys is bad behavior, but they may not. It's your job as a parent to redirect these actions. If they throw something, pick it up and calmly put it back in their hands, but don't let it go. Instead, say: "We don't throw. We SET toys down." As you voice this, guide their hand and slowly have them set the toy down. This turns this 'terrible twos' moment into a learning opportunity.

Take a Break

Sometimes we all need to let our emotions out. When your toddler seems unreceptive to potential solutions, give them a five-minute timeout. Put them in a safe space like their room (if baby proofed) or their crib. Let them know that you're going to let them take a break and that you will be back in five minutes once they have calmed down. Initially, this can make the meltdown escalate, but there's something less satisfying about screaming without an audience. When you come back, calmly ask if they would like to rejoin you. If they get upset again, let them know you're giving them another five minutes.

How to Prevent a Meltdown

It's always good to know how to stop a meltdown, but what's better is how to prevent them from happening altogether.

Help Your Toddler Identify Different Feelings

Toddlers have trouble identifying their feelings. The best way to remedy this issue is to print out pictures of people who are mad, sad, happy, hungry, and tired. As your child has these various feelings, show them these "flashcards" and ask if the image shows how they are feeling. "Are you SAD?" "Does this make you MAD?" "Do you feel HUNGRY?" Over time, this will help them identify these emotions. Keep the cards on you and, as these situations arise, they can quickly point out the problem and limit the length of the tantrum.

Give Them Choices

Mother and daughter choosing doughnut in a cafe

Toddlers crave control. If you give them small victories, they'll be happier and more cooperative in the long run. For instance, when they go to get dressed, let them pick out their pants, shirt, socks, and jacket. The key to success is only giving two choices to decide between two pairs of pants, two hats, and two pairs of shoes.

This one activity suddenly gives them a lot of power. They made various decisions, and you supported those choices. Parents can give them these opportunities when selecting a snack, choosing a vegetable to eat for dinner, and during their bedtime tasks. For instance, "What do you want to do first - take a bath or brush your teeth?" Both activities need to get done, but they feel like they have some power in their nighttime routine. This can help with the toddler meltdowns at bedtime.

Stick to a Schedule

Children thrive on schedules. Keep their naptimes, bedtimes, and mealtimes consistent. Try to run your errands and book your doctors' appointments in the same time frame each day. This allows your toddler to anticipate certain activities, removing the element of surprise, which can sometimes trigger tantrums.

Set Expectations Early

If you have a busy morning ahead, let your toddler know! "We have three stores to go to today and then mommy has to go to the doctor. I am bringing lots of games and snacks, so I need you to be good." As you progress through the various to-dos on your list, let them know what's coming up next. This is another easy way to remove the element of surprise and to help them know what to expect. This same premise should be applied to punishments as well. "I understand you are frustrated, but we do not throw things. If you throw another toy, you will get a timeout."

Make Time for Your Child

Sometimes, tantrums are tied to a need to feel loved and valued. Your baby needs your attention. Life gets busy, and parents sometimes forget that they are the center of their young child's world. Dedicate 30 minutes to an hour to focused fun time with your child. Also, make a point to label the time you spend with them. For example, if your child's name is Beau, then verbally announce, "It is Beau time!" This lets them know that this is a period of fun and undivided attention. Give them control of what games you play or books you read. Remove distractions and prioritize their needs.

Give Them Opportunities to Feel Valuable

Kids want to be needed. We all do. Another great tactic for preventing toddler meltdowns is to give them tasks and decisions throughout the day. Have them help you bring in the groceries, throw things in the trash, clean up the dishes after dinner, and put their dirty clothes in the laundry. Let them decide on certain items for dinner and make it their job to feed the dog. This not only makes them feel important, but it also teaches them responsibility.

Tantrum vs. Meltdown: What's the Difference?

Many parents use the words meltdown and tantrum interchangeably, but these terms have very different definitions. A tantrum is an outburst that arises when a child is frustrated or angry because they don't like the result of a situation. These episodes usually involve stomping, screaming, flailing of the arms and legs, kicking, and even throwing objects.

They are most common among children between the ages of one and three (peaking between two and three) and they typically stop soon after a child's fourth birthday. In contrast, meltdowns can happen between the ages of one to 100. These are an emotional response to feeling overwhelmed, surprised, tired, hungry, fearful, or in pain. Overstimulation (a sensory overload) can also trigger these episodes. These can also bring bouts of misbehavior like pushing and kicking, as well as crying and screaming.

Meltdowns and Tantrums Are Normal

Why do tantrums and meltdowns occur? During the toddler time frame, your child doesn't know how to recognize or properly articulate what's wrong. This is a normal part of a child's development, and they will slowly diminish as your child begins to better understand themselves and the way the world works.

During these moments of distress, it's extremely important for parents to remain calm. This can be a difficult task, but try to breathe deeply and count to five before responding. Also, remember that every parent has dealt with this issue at some point in their role as mom or dad. What this means is that your focus needs to be on your toddler and not everyone else. Let onlookers stare and judge. They'll be there someday.

The longer you fixate on other things, the more the meltdown will escalate. Prioritize your baby and their emotions. Have empathy and be patient. Also, don't forget about your other kids. Put the baby in their crib or high chair. Ask your older kids to go watch their favorite show in the other room when at home or to think about the things you have left to grab for dinner while in the produce aisle at the grocery store.

What Not to Do During a Tantrum

The last thing to remember when a toddler tantrum is occurring is to never give in to the tantrum. This only teaches your child that they can act out to get their way. Bribery is also not the answer. Parents should not ignore the behavior either. You want your toddler to learn to recognize their feelings and understand that there are better ways to cope than having a meltdown. Most importantly, as they learn to better control their emotions and self-soothe in these moments of anger and disappointment, praise them! Positive reinforcement is an effective way to build better behaviors and help diminish child meltdowns.

How to Help a Toddler or Child Having a Meltdown