5 Phrases to Help Avoid Toddler Meltdowns

by ParentCo. March 13, 2024

crying baby

I'm not a huge fan of offering unsolicited parenting advice. I've received enough of it myself to be wary of people's intentions when they do offer it.

Are they judging? Criticizing? Honestly trying to help?

My hope is that, if you're reading this, it's because you're curious to learn what's worked for other parents who were aiming to raise kind, thinking, strong, and flourishing people. The internet can get a bad rap as a really easy place to find bad advice, but I think sometimes it can almost feel safer than asking in person: those who are looking for advice can find it, those who are not looking for it don't have to be subjected to the unsolicited version of it.

What I write here is offered only as a "this is what has worked for me," and perhaps each phrase will only be used for a season. What works at three years old may not work at four or five. I think the best thing for parents to remember is that we usually know our kids better than any other adult on the planet. We know when things work, we know when they'll fall apart.

There has never been a silver bullet for parenting, and there never will be. That's what makes it so hard. It's also what makes it so beautiful – we grow so much more when we are forced to dive deep into knowing our individual children well.

That said, here are the phrases that have helped us.

1 | "We are problem-solvers, not whiners."

My husband is an engineer – a perpetual problem solver, if you will. As his spouse, it's both a blessing and a curse; he loves to solve problems, but he also loves to solve problems. As one who loves to work through the process, sometimes I have to remind him that I'm not looking for a cut and dry solution right now. The strength? I can usually present him with the situation when I have a particular problem and expect that he won't give up on it until it's resolved.

As a dad, he's found this phrase to also be helpful with our three-year-old, who is (I hope) at the peak of the whiny years. When we hear her voice creep ever so slightly into the whiny range, we remind her of our goal: "We are problem-solvers, not whiners." Most of the time, this helps her re-orient to a frame of mind in which she's focused on figuring out what the problem is that led her to want to whine. Then we can move on to fixing that problem, or working past it.

I'm waiting for the day when this phrase eventually backfires and she responds with, "I'm a whiner!" but for now it's working.

2 | "Use your strong voice."

I picked this phrase up from a friend who has her Ph.D. in developmental psychology and teaches at a local university. I pay close attention to how she parents her own children (who are the same ages as mine) because I admire her, and we share similar views on parenting. We also both happen to have oldest daughters, and as a mom who likes to encourage my daughter's natural inclination toward leadership in a world that will try to steer her toward deference to men, it's helpful to have other friends who are in the same boat.

This is another phrase that can help cut the whining short. I particularly love that it's positively phrased: instead of "no whining," it's re-framing the situation to give my daughter an opportunity to choose the non-whiny option. It's giving her the power to influence the interaction in a positive way. I also use this phrase when she reverts to annoying "baby voice" – a habit that is sometimes cute when we are in playful mode, but that I don't wish to encourage too much. I want her to hear the difference, herself, in how she uses her voice.

3 | "You can give it to me, or I will take it from you."

Early on in my daughter's toddler years, I had an eye-opening experience when I watched another adult take something from her that she wasn't supposed to play with. It wasn't a dangerous object, and not necessarily one that could break easily, but there was no asking, and no discussion. The object was simply taken directly from her hands. She threw a fit, obviously.

I'm not saying that there isn't a time and a place for taking objects directly from our children's hands – knives, scissors, poisonous materials, etc. But with the other stuff – the non life-threatening objects that are not meant to be played with or need to be left behind at a friend's house – I've found that the more I can give her the opportunity to choose to hand it over, the less likely we are to encounter a tantrum.

It empowers her to weigh the options and choose the one where she does not lose control. It doesn't change the results: Eventually, as a parent, I will have executive authority over the object, but I'm giving her the opportunity to choose under what circumstances it comes back to me.

I usually hold out my hand and bend down to her eye level so she can see that we are on even ground and that my hand is ready to receive the object. I also make sure it is a command, not a question ("Can you give it to me?") when it is imperative that the object be handed over. "No" is not an option here.

4 | "...Or mommy gets to choose."

Kids are just like us, honestly. We like to be in control – or at least we like to think we're in control. It's when we start to lose control (however real or fictitious it is) that we tend to freak out.

In this sense, giving my children choices generally tends to work in our favor. Take putting on pants: do you want to wear the green ones? Or the pink ones? Or the gray ones? My end goal is accomplished, the putting on of pants, but my daughter still maintains some semblance of ownership within the situation – it's her decision entirely which color pants she wears.

Is there always time for this? No. Often, I have to employ the five magic light-a-fire-under-her-butt words: or mommy gets to choose. Honestly, I've never seen the girl move faster in making up her mind than when on the receiving end of this nonviolent threat. It's the loss of ownership, the loss of having a say, the loss of participation in a choice that drives her.

5 | "Last one, all done."

We'd all like warnings when there is about to be a change – a job change, a neighborhood change, a change in leadership, or even the weather. My children are no different. Whether it's the last bite of a cookie or the last ride down the slide or the last blowing of the bubble wand, I find the transition from activity to completion of activity goes much smoother when I give them a head's up that it's soon to end. Even better if I can give "5 more rides down the slide" and count down with each one.

I'd love to hear what short phrases you use with your own young (or elementary-aged) children - we're always looking for the next solution!



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