behavior development parenting toddler

Tantrums and Meltdowns: What's the difference between them and what to do when your child has one!

Toddler tantrum meltdown

The early childhood years can be a sea of intense emotions. As parents, we need to learn how to navigate those turbulent waters in a way that gets our child back to calm seas and smooth sailing. So, if you are struggling with tantrums and meltdowns from your little, you are going to want to keep reading as I will be sharing must know developmental information as well as tips on how to help calm your child’s chaos.

At it's core, what we are really talking about here is emotional regulation and that isn’t something that just happens.  Rather, it is a skill that is taught just like using a spoon and walking. I’m not sure why we are so quick to support our infants when they are distressed and so resistant to doing the same for our toddlers and preschoolers. My personal belief is that many times parents and caretakers are lacking an understanding of the brain development piece involved in this challenging stage which often leads to unrealistic behavioral expectations.  I'm hoping to demystify that today.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I prefer to work smarter, not harder and a BIG piece of this when it comes to young children is understanding social emotional and brain development.

But before we go on, I want to start by making a distinction between a tantrum and a meltdown. As someone who has worked with toddlers and preschoolers for nearly 25 years, I see tantrums as big emotions as a result of being given a limit. For example, telling your toddler that they can’t have a cookie because it is almost time for dinner. This usually results in the toddler dropping to the floor in a puddle of anger and emotion.

Meltdowns in my mind are the result of being overwhelmed by stimuli and emotion. For example, your little one is trying to do a puzzle and no matter how many times they try, they can’t get a piece to fit. They throw the puzzle in frustration and/or end up in a puddle of tears and crying on the floor. Or perhaps you take your little one to the mall. They were happy as you approached but once you got inside with all the noise, smells and visual stimulation, your child quickly becomes agitated, overwhelmed and unconsolable. These are examples of meltdowns as a result of big emotions and being overstimulated.

Can the two be related at times? Absolutely! A toddler who has taken in a bunch of sensory information and then been given a limit can have a meltrum (ha ha, let’s make that term go vira!). Now add hunger, lack of sleep and feeling under the weather to either of these scenarios and you have a perfect storm for emotional overwhelm.

So now that I have made that clear as mud, I want to talk about what is going on in their brains during these moments. I like using the example of an upstairs brain and downstairs brain as described by Daniel Siegel in his book The Whole Brain Child (which I highly recommend). The downstairs brain is primitive and responsible for basic functions, instincts and emotions. The upstairs brain is the thinking part of the brain that includes problem solving, controlling emotions and empathy. And here’s a little developmental nugget: The upstairs brain isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties.  Yikes!

When talking about development, I always tell parents it occurs top down and from the inside out. When it comes to the brain, however, it goes from the bottom and back (the brain stem) to up and front (cerebral cortex).

So toddlers are building their downstairs brain rearranging furniture and trying to create order and make sense of things while slowly building a rickety staircase to the upstairs brain. Preschoolers are improving on that staircase, making it more sturdy filling in gaps. They are hanging out in a few of those rooms upstairs for periods of time, but sometimes they tumble down the steps to the downstairs brain.

So what I want you to take away from this is that fear, anxiety, frustration and sensory overload will lead toddlers and preschoolers downstairs. When the brain is flooded with these feelings, your little one is unable to access the upstairs no matter how much they want to. So to expect them to ‘calm down’ when told or to completely ignore those big emotions doesn’t help their brains to calm down – they still need you as a guide. But how do we do this in a way that supports but doesn’t enable? I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips:

Be the calm in their storm. I always tell parents when their child’s emotions go up, yours need to go down. Have you ever noticed that the more agitated and stressed you become, your child seems to match it? My favorite parenting quote of all time is from L.R. Knost: “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” Now this is easier said than done for some of us. If this is something you struggle with, stay with me to the end and I will share a resource that may be of help.

Less is more. Often times, I find that parents talk or touch too much during this process. Hear me out on this: I’m not talking about completely ignoring your child during these moments. Rather, I am advocating a conscious effort to provide support in a way that does not overwhelm an already overstimulated sensory system. Continuing to talk and touch during these big emotions can make it harder for your little to calm. That leads me into my next tip...

Create a calm down zone. A calm down zone is an area designed to provide a space to minimize overwhelming sensory input while providing calming inputs at the same time. I like to use a quiet corner area, a pop up tent or even the child’s bedroom (more on that in a moment).

A calm down zone should be filled with soft squishy pillows or bean bags, blankets, stuffed animals, etc. Think swaddling a baby – you want them to get all sorts of good sensory inputs. I don’t know about you, but I calm much more quickly when I am snuggled in my bed or in my cozy chair with a blanket than when I am standing or sitting on a hard surface.

Our goal is to provide as much calming sensory input as possible. This calm down area should be free of noise such as televisions, lots of people, smells, etc. We want their brains to be able to focus on calming rather than having to process extraneous sights, sounds and smells in their environment.

Now let me talk a moment about using the bedroom for a calm down area. I actually like this strategy IF it is done right. The most important part of this is to understand that this is NOT a time out. Time out is punitive and we don’t want to punish our children for having emotions. That can cause all sorts of problems down the road so let’s not even go there. It is all about our messaging and how we handle the process which I am going to walk through in a moment.

The ultimate goal here is to establish their room as a place where they can go, feel safe and calm. I mean, that’s what we do as adults, right? If I’m having a bad day or are really frustrated, I find a quiet place away from everyone else where I can calm myself down and get back on track before re-engaging with my family. If done right, we are providing our children with a very important coping technique that they can use well into adulthood. And isn’t that our goal as parents? To equip our kids with tools that will help them navigate the rigors of adulthood?

We used the bedroom as a calm down zone for our kids from toddlerhood. Now don’t get me wrong, they didn’t particularly care for it when it was first introduced, but over time their rooms became their safe zone to process emotions. I remember when my son was in high school. He came home one day and had clearly had a difficult day. When asked if he wanted to talk about it, he said “no, I just want to go to my room and chill out for a while. We can talk later when I am in a better mood and have had some time to think.” As painful as it was to know that my son was struggling, it was also a proud mama moment to know that he was utilizing a coping strategy that worked to help calm his brain.

Okay, so let’s go into what this process looks like in action:

  • When your child has a meltdown or tantrum, use the same phrase every time. We are building a neural pathway in the brain to help them understand this process. It could sound something like: You are angry (sad, frustrated, etc.); let’s go to your calm down zone.
  • Take your child to the calm down zone, preferably just by their hand – the goal is going to be that down the road they will go there on their own so start with the end in mind. If you do have to carry them, get them to the zone quickly and put them down.
  • No talking during this process. Remember, we want to minimize additional sensory input and that includes talking.
  • Sit next to your child on the floor if needed, providing them with your hand or rubbing their back if they seem to want touch. For some kids, the additional touch can make calming even more difficult. You know your child best, so follow your gut.
  • If your child wants to sit on your lap during this process, that is fine as long as they are not hitting, kicking, pinching, etc. If they do this, put them back on the bean bags.
  • If they are just sitting on your lap crying, that’s fine, but again – no talking! We want to provide support for them to calm but do not want to inadvertently provide reinforcement for behaviors we are trying to diminish.
  • As they calm, you can try giving them some deep hugs. Deep touch actually calms the brain. Now having said that, follow your child’s lead – if it seems to agitate them further, then stop.
  • Once they are calm, fill their bucket, e.g., “There is my sweet boy! Let’s go get the playdough out!” Just a tip: sensory play such as playdough, water play, sandboxes, etc. can further help your child get back to their upstairs brain.

That's it!  Now all you have to do is rinse and repeat and I'm confident your child will give you LOTS of opportunities to practices these strategies.  As I mentioned, the goal is to ultimately get to the point where you can tell your child as they grow that they need to go calm down in their calm down zone and have them go there on their own. I've worked with many kids over the years who even at the age of two will seek out their quiet zone on their own.  

What we are trying to do is let them know that it's okay to have big emotions and that there is a safe place for them to express them. With the right supports, over time your child’s meltdowns and tantrums should become less intense and less frequent. And you can feel good about the fact that you have helped them build the stairs between the downstairs and upstairs brains while also providing them with a coping mechanism that they can carry with them for life. 

Now if you are interested in more strategies to handle and even AVOID tantrums, you are going to want to download my free Tantrum Tamer tip sheet.  You can access it here.  

If, however, you are looking for more support, you may be a good fit for The Mentor Mom Academy -- a membership program designed for parents of toddlers and preschooler where you can join a community of like minded, supportive parents who are wanting to do better and be better.  It includes access not only to the community but to resources including regular live sessions with me where you can get coaching and support with your parenting concerns and struggles.  All this for the low cost of only $10/month!  And better yet, no long term commitments -- you can quit at any time. You can learn more here.

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