A New Way to Think About Toddler Tantrums That Will Turn Your World Upside Down
Got the tantrum blues? Join the club! Read this letter from a mama in the thick of it, and then let’s talk strategies.
I’m contacting you because I feel like I need help with my toddler. I’m hoping you can give me any advice that can help both him and I. My son is 22 months. He is very outspoken, a trait I love about him, but we are struggling. I feel like from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to sleep, we are constantly dealing with meltdowns.
I don’t know what to do. I offer choices, I try to help him take deep breaths, I don’t shut down his emotions, I acknowledge them and try to help him get through them, I even have tried to give him alone time to see if that helps calm him.
I know he’s not acting this way on purpose and it comes with this age, but, it’s gotten to a level where I feel like I am not being a good mother. I can’t help calm him and it’s gotten to where we are both crying.
What can I do? Just this morning, while making the bed, he wanted to play under the covers, which I understood and played with him, making forts, etc, for an hour. It had gotten to the point where it was time to get the rest of the day going and I told him we were done playing. He didn’t like that and the meltdown started.
Next, I offered him two choices of outfits; he threw them on the floor and had another meltdown. What do you advise? I’m with him 24/7 and I feel like the constant meltdowns are making me short fused and I know that he doesn’t deserve a mother who snaps out negative at his emotions.
Dear, Sweet Mama…
I can tell by the way you write that you have boatloads of compassion for your child. You know from your research that children who are tantruming or melting down are really having a hard time emotionally, and that resonates with you so deeply that you feel it in your soul.
Your Parenting Toolkit Is Full of Good Stuff
You have good strategies in your parenting toolkit already! You offer choices first, you take deep breaths, and you do your best to help your child calm down, knowing that what most children need is more love and not reprimanding when they are hurting inside.
I would say that you already have the golden ticket here with your approach. You’re doing great, mama! Honestly, there are just a couple of things I think you might be missing in your bag to help you deal with this situation more effectively.
The Mindshift You Need: Self-Compassion
When I read how you are framing yourself, it is a story of a mom who is feeling inadequate because she is unable to calm her own child. You see yourself becoming “not a good mother” when you’re stressed, and you “can’t help” him, despite throwing your entire being into the effort. You’ve tried everything you can think of, and you still can’t do it.
These feelings of helplessness are causing your anxiety and frustration to spike during these difficult moments.
...and it’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The more your child melts down over the little things, the more helpless and frustrated you feel. His behavior is both developmentally normal and influenced by yours. No doubt you are aware of this, and the more uptight you are about it, the longer his tantrums will last and more frequent they will be. The more you expect them and worry about them, the more likely they are to happen.
Conversely, and most importantly, the more relaxed and easygoing you are during his meltdowns the easier they will be for both of you.
So how are we going to help you get more relaxed about this, mama?
I want you to take some time to reflect on our conversation. Go on a long walk alone or with your partner and stew on it, do some journaling, talk about it with some IRL friends at the park while your children play, or do some restorative yoga poses in the evening while you meditate.
I also want you to do some research into the concept of reframing negative self talk. If you choose, you can change your habit of thinking of yourself as a bad mother when things go awry.
Not to sound like a Negative Nellie, but mama, there are a lot of tough times coming your way in the future.
Talk to any parent who has a child older than yours and you will find that parenting can be a very emotionally painful experience - especially for those who are like us: sensitive, empathic people. From the occasional terrifying illnesses to the first time his romantic crush rejects him, you will feel it.
If you don’t intentionally reframe the way you think about yourself as a parent now, all of these future experiences will be internalized through a screen of guilt and inadequacy. I am not chiding you. I know this from experience, and I so wish that someone had told me this flat out when I had my first toddler.
Don’t Fear Those Meltdowns
I wish I could tell you exactly why some children tantrum more than others at different ages. We have all kinds of suggested labels for different types of common childhood behavior and there are many ways we can help.
Your child’s tantrums and meltdowns may be caused by...
Anxiety - in general or caused by a specific event
Insecurity - because of lack of enough boundaries
Disturbed sense of order - routine disrupted
Frustrated by own inability to do things he feels he is capable of
Being asked to do something he feels he is not capable of
Overly hungry or tired - not enough sleep?
Illness - a cold/virus is not yet obvious
Sensory overstimulation or understimulation - not just for those with “sensory processing disorder” but this can happen with any child
The key to helping him in the current moment will depend on your ability to observe, wait patiently, observe again, try something new, observe again, and try something else, and then wait and wait.
Follow your gut. If you feel like the tantrums are way outside of the norm and an indicator that something is seriously wrong, please find in-person help from a counselor or at the very least consult your child’s doctor — but many children do go through a very normal tantruming phase that is no indication of any more severe problem. Trust your intuition here.
On patience…I know that it’s hard to wait. You want to solve his behavior immediately. The truth is that sometimes we never know what causes our childrens’ meltdowns or the “right” thing to do to help. We have to ride the wave with them.
You Are Already What He Needs
You are the best mama for your son - the only mama he ever needs, the one he absolutely hands down no doubt whatsoever deserves, and you are a good mother - even when you are short fused, even when you feel like you can’t do anything to directly calm him in the moment. He is a lucky, lucky little boy.
You are not letting him struggle alone. You are there with him in those tough, frustrating moments, and maybe you are letting his emotions dictate yours a bit - it’s true. But you know what? There is a LOT of parenting advice out there telling us that in order to properly handle our children’s meltdowns we have to be these cool, impassive, emotionless beings, and I just don’t buy it.
Lean in to it. If you’re a passionate, sensitive person, it makes sense that your son is, too! He is feeling the unfairness of the world intensely right now. His brain is not yet developed to understand logic and reason, so he is just...feeling.
While tantrums look really dramatic on the outside, they are just outside expressions of inner emotions. They’re nothing to be afraid of.
The two of you are still intertwined emotionally. It’s been a year or more since he left your womb, and yet your heartbeats and breaths still sync when things are good, and also when things are bad.
I am so touched that you reached out to me and I am rooting for you and your little darling. I know things will get better soon for you both. You’ll make sure of it!
Here’s Your Free Parenting Checklist
Get my free checklist of the most common reasons why your child might be tantruming.
Here’s a sneak preview…
Here’s what to do next.
Download the checklist. You’ll get the list, plus, when you join my community of readers, you’ll also receive gentle, compassionate parenting tips and information about educating your child at home.
Save it digitally, print, or share it with a friend.
Put it on your fridge or in a special place and use it when you’re feeling stressed and need some objectivity.