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How to Stay Calm When Your Toddler’s Melting Down

shutterstock_93516394I’ve got some pretty recent experience with this one, as my almost three-year-old has been alternating between intensely delightful and intensely–well, intense.

This can apply to your toddler’s tantrums (which tend to be brief) or meltdowns (which are protracted bouts of screaming and oppositional behavior that can go on for minutes to–worst case scenarios–more than an hour.)  What’s key is focusing not on what they’re doing, but on what you should be doing yourself.

Challenging, I know, but here  are some ideas to get you on a better path.1)  Remember that your child will react to your reactions.

You might feel like there’s nothing you can do to prevent certain meltdowns, or to halt them once they’re in progress.  And you might be  right.  But you do have the power to make them worse.

When your toddler is already feeling out of control, they’ll cue off your response.  If you seem to be losing it, too, that can prolong the situation.

2)  Be willing to step away if you need to, in order to regain your own composure.

Sometimes we think we’re helping our kids by staying  close, even if we’re being triggered.  We don’t want to abandon them in their hour of need.  But sometimes staying close is only making the problem worse (see #1.)

3)  Step away earlier than you think you need to, and do it in a healthy way.

If you remain in the situation too long, you’re more likely to register irritation and to become snappish.  So it’s better to notice your own rising emotion and to say calmly (because you can still be calm), “I’m going to be over there, and when you’re calm, we can talk.”

The “over there” might be in the same room, or it might be outside the door, listening for when your child has calmed down.  (Stay as close as you need to in order to ensure safety, while still giving you as much space as possible to regain your equilibrium.)

One thing that’s worked for me with my daughter when she is obsessively repeating the same thing (“I wanted the other diaper!”), I tell her that I want to talk to her, I want to be near her, but I won’t talk anymore about that one thing (i.e. “I’m not going to talk anymore about the diaper.”)

4)  Know that your goal is to teach your child self-regulation, and you can only do that if you model it.

Enough said.  Refer to #1-3.

5)  Recognizing your limitations is a positive.  Denying them only gets you in more trouble.

We all want to be good parents.  If we’re constantly pushing ourselves to meet lofty standards and getting down on ourselves when we can’t meet those standards, we’re actually making a hard job even harder.

That’s true for the way you see your child.  At this age, they’re going to have tantrums, and meltdowns.  Accept that it’s going to happen, no matter how proactive you are.  Because if you don’t accept it, you might be more apt to be frustrated and embarrassed (especially if it’s in public.)

Toddler meltdowns are not a sign that you’re a bad parent.  It’s a sign that they’re in a developmental stage that is all about testing boundaries and limits and finding their voice.

Be kind to yourself, and to them.

Child screaming image available from Shutterstock.

How to Stay Calm When Your Toddler’s Melting Down

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2015). How to Stay Calm When Your Toddler’s Melting Down. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jan 2015
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