5 Reasons Your Toddler Is Having a Meltdown -- and 5 Quick Solutions!

5 Reasons Your Toddler Is Having a Meltdown -- and 5 Quick Solutions!

A tantrum is brewing, and you don’t know what to do. Here’s what to do now (and later).

By: Marisa Torrieri Bloom

As any parent of a 1-, 2- or 3-year-old knows, a child can go from ecstatically happy to miserable and screaming in a span of seconds. And sometimes, these negative mood shifts -- ending in what is best described as a “meltdown” -- happen for seemingly no reason.

“Toddlers lack the emotional regulation, language, and executive function of older children,” says Mary Dobson, LMFT, “so short fuses, sensitivity, and emotionality are to be expected. Toddler meltdowns are universal, and not a call for therapy. Toddlers express frustration in a number of ways, such as throwing objects, hitting, head banging, shrieks of displeasure, name calling, and kicking being just a few.”

Thomas Phelan, a clinical psychologist and creator of 1-2-3 Magic parenting materials, including Tantrums! Managing Meltdowns in Public and Private, agrees. “Understand that a tantrum is normal,” says Phelan. “Twenty percent of 3-year-olds have tantrums every day. They are normal and not a sign of mental illness.” In other words: You probably didn’t do anything wrong (whew!).

With that in mind, here are five of the biggest environmental triggers for toddler meltdowns, as well as expert strategies for how to deal with them.

Meltdown Trigger no. 1: She’s famished! Hunger, along with sickness and fatigue, increases the probability and severity of a tantrum, says Phelan. If your little one is cranky and throwing things, the first thing you should do is take a brief inventory of her day. When was her last meal or snack? Was it more than five hours ago? Did she eat everything on her plate, or just pick at her food? Offering an immediate healthy snack such as a tangerine or a slice of cheese could ease her bad mood.

“Regular snacks, water, positive feedback, rest, and consistent structured activities make for jovial kids,” says Dobson, adding that going forward, parents should try to make sure their kids are offered meals and snacks on a regular schedule (on a busy day, sometimes it helps to put reminders in your smartphone’s calendar, for example).

Meltdown Trigger no. 2: He’s wiped out. As with hunger, exhaustion is a big meltdown trigger. So if your kid is close to his nap time, refused to nap, or just had a bad night’s sleep, he could be taking out his irritability on the kitchen floor, stomping his feet, or throwing things. Other than putting your toddler to bed, there is no quick solution to exhaustion. However, anything from getting some fresh air to taking a break from an activity can help – and you might have to just wait it out.

“There will be days when the child simply cannot self regulate and you will need to leave the situation and spend time in a quiet and low-stimulation activity until the child has calmed down enough to nap,” says Dobson. But while an early bedtime is warranted when a child is overtired, one must also be aware that a dramatically early bedtime may lead to an earlier wake time, she adds.

Meltdown Trigger no. 3: The world is crazy busy! The world, according to a toddler, is a mystical place, with a blurry distinction between animate and inanimate objects, and perceived threats lurking around every corner (a barber’s scissors, the vacuum cleaner). This chronic anxiety produces stress, which builds up throughout the day to high levels of emotionality, says Dobson. If you see your toddler freaking out because something new enters his world -- like a vacuum cleaner in a grocery store -- remove him from the situation as soon as possible. Then, when he is calmer, try to talk to him about how objects function.

“This will enhance his awareness of environment and diminish fear caused by ‘what ifs,’” says Dobson. Later on, “exposure therapy, or gradually introducing objects that provoke anxiety, can be helpful here. If your toddler is terrified of the vacuum cleaner, you may place the vacuum next to a favorite toy at dinnertime. Then have your toddler hug and pat the vacuum, and eventually turn the vacuum on in front of him while you dance to his favorite song, building a positive association, showing him that his fear is unfounded, and modeling that you are not afraid.”

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Meltdown trigger no. 4: She wants to do something fun but inappropriate! You like to say “yes” to your little one. But sometimes you just have to say “no” (like when he wants to watch a cartoon on your tablet at your Sunday night family dinner). So if Junior starts whining, think fast: Is giving in going to set you back, or will it provide an easy, one-time diversion with no harm done? “If you can give them what they want, give it to them, but not after the tantrums start,” says Phelan.


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If you must offer a firm veto, keep it short and follow it with silence, he adds. “The worst thing you can do is talk to a tantruming child,” says Phelan. “It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. What the parent thinks you’re doing is reasoning, and what the child thinks you’re doing is whimpering, and they take that as a sign of weakness.” If the kid is still throwing a tantrum after 10 seconds or so, your next best strategy is to disengage as much as you can and wait it out, says Phelan, adding that this strategy can work for all meltdown scenarios (including the toddler who is having a tantrum out of hunger or exhaustion).

Finally, if all else fails, remove the kid from the situation, say, by putting him in his room for a few minutes. “Yelling at the kid is the wrong strategy,” says Phelan. The goal of tantrums is to get what they want, or punish you for not getting what they want.” So if you get mad at them, what you’re telling them is that they just got what they want by getting under your skin.

Meltdown trigger no. 5: He wants something, but doesn’t know how to say so! Younger toddlers, or even older 3- and 4-year-olds, don’t always have the language skills to appropriately convey to you what they want. “Imagine being stranded on a desert island and being unable to communicate to the natives that you’re dying of thirst,” says Dobson. “Failing to have proper language to express a need or a want is frustrating. After all, you’re their grown-ups and are supposed to know things.”

The short-term solution? Trust your gut -- and think about what else might be going on. Treat this meltdown like any of the aforementioned scenarios (if he seems overwhelmed, take him outside, or offer a healthy snack to give him fuel and a good distraction).

The long-term solution, says Dobson, is to talk aloud and read to your toddler often, and practice having “conversations,” in which you model verbal communication for him to mimic. Point out facial expressions in a crowd, on flash cards or in a picture book to teach the language of feelings (“Jane feels happy because she picked flowers!”). “Emotional intelligence begins with teaching care and concern for others’ inner lives,” says Dobson.

What are some of your go-to strategies for dealing with a toddler experiencing a major meltdown?

Marisa Torrieri Bloom is a freelance writer and guitar teacher who lives with her husband and two young sons in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Image ©iStock.com/szefei

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