It’s rough being a toddler. Mere months ago, your whole world was milk, sleep, and cuddles.
Now you’re a little kid able to walk but not allowed to go wherever you like, able to reach for things on tables but not allowed to touch most of it. You're always carried when you’d rather run free, and set down when you want to be held.
Being a toddler must really suck sometimes. With all the new brain synapses forming each day, new feelings bubble to the surface. Feelings with no name, feelings you’ve never had to process before. With that in mind, it’s no wonder the average toddler melts down with the slightest provocation — and sometimes, for no apparent reason at all.
What does this mean for parents? It means that being a caregiver with a toddler in your charge is going to totally suck sometimes. Your toddler will choose such completely inopportune moments for his tantrums that you'll question why you didn’t hand this child over to be raised by wolves. You'll have wild fantasies about walking away — far, far away – as you stand there, ears ringing with the anguished screams of a toddler who is not allowed to eat the ... um ... the ... good grief what IS that thing you picked up off the floor??
Deep breath. Here it comes. THE MELTDOWN. And as you bemoan your fate, you'll wonder why you couldn’t prevent this kicking, screaming, tearful snotfest. You'll wonder why, despite your very best parenting efforts, this kid is giving you such a hard time.
Ready for the scrap of wisdom that'll keep you afloat in this endless sea of refusals, screams, and foot-stomping tantrums? Good. Here it is:
Your toddler isn’t giving you a hard time. He or she is having a hard time. This child looks to you for strength. This kid needs you right now.
But it’s actually not about you at all. This tiny person is awash in unfamiliar feelings, with no way to express them, and no experience in processing them. Disappointment sucks, even when you know what it is and how to deal with it. Imagine having it rear its unfamiliar head out of nowhere just as you’re about to gleefully engage in an oral exploration of this fascinating, shiny scrap of street trash you just rescued from a puddle.
With that in mind, remind yourself: “She’s not giving me a hard time, she’s having a hard time.” For good measure, it may bear repeating. “He’s not rejecting my authority, he’s looking for a way to process confusion and disappointment.”
Remember, you’re not the cause of this meltdown — you’re the cure. This is your moment to shine, as you help your child learn to process complex emotions. Get down to your child’s level and calmly explain to her why she’s upset.
Knowledge is power, and right now your child has no idea why she suddenly feels so awful. Your empathy and explanation will give meaning and validation to these new feelings, however unpleasant.
“Sweetheart, I can see that you’re mad right now because I took that shiny wrapper away. I know you wanted it, but it's yucky trash, it's not a toy. What you're experiencing right now is called anger. It's hard, I know. Would you like a hug?"
“Hey, you know what? No one likes to wait. I know you want dinner right now, but it isn’t ready yet. We all have to wait until it’s cooked. It’s okay to be disappointed when you can’t have what you want right away, but it’s not okay to throw your cup on the floor.”
These clear conversations will help your little one identify and process unpleasant emotions. Just like every milestone, it'll take practice to master. By reminding yourself that the inevitable tantrums are not about giving you a hard time, but about your child’s emotional growth, you can help him or her reconcile these new and surprising internal battles.