Ask Sarah: How to Help with Toddler Meltdowns

Struggling with tantrums, bedtime boundaries, or simply wondering how to raise happy, confident kids? Sarah Rosensweet offers peaceful parenting advice to help families find balance.

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Q:  What is the best way to handle toddler tantrums that include yelling or being mean to friends?

– Mom of two, ages three and 13 months

When anyone, whether three or 33, is yelling or speaking meanly, they have activated their emergency response system of fight-or-flight. Our nervous systems are not very good at telling the difference between a real threat (like a tiger) and a perceived threat (like your friend not sharing the sandbox toys).

What you are seeing is the ‘fight’ response of the protective fight-or-flight response. It’s also important to note that this happens unconsciously and automatically, and your child isn’t intentionally doing it to be mean. I wouldn’t categorize it as mean, as your child is doing their best. Remind yourself that they’re having a hard time, not giving anyone a hard time.

All of that said, of course, we don’t want our children to yell at their friends.

At three, your child doesn’t yet have the brain capacity for impulse control when upset or excited. You can repeat yourself over and over, and they will still find it challenging to manage themselves until their brain has matured.

If these tantrums happen a lot, consider doing some problem-solving. Look for any patterns in what has upset your child. There may be some adjustments you can make. Also, consider staying close by to intervene if things get heated.

When your child has already started shouting, focus on soothing and empathizing. We often make the mistake of responding to the behaviour rather than the feeling that is driving the behaviour. So to stop the behaviour, we must focus on what’s underneath it.

Make sure you are calm and remind yourself that your child is doing their best and wants to be nice to their friend.

We want to focus on soothing, empathizing and supporting the other child as necessary.

You might first say to the child on the receiving end, “I am so sorry. No one deserves to be yelled at. I think (your child’s name) is having a tough time.”

Depending on how upset your child is, you may want to consider removing your child from the situation for a little “time in” with you so you can help them calm down.

You can empathize and say, “Wow, you were so upset that your friend wasn’t letting you use their shovel and bucket. I get it. You want to play with them, too, and it’s so hard to wait until they finish.”

Focus on being calm and compassionate (referred to as co-regulation). Your child uses your calm to come back to their own calm.

You can also model the behaviour you want to see. If your child isn’t too upset, you can do it in the moment or wait until later. For example, say something like, “You know, if your friend is playing with a toy; you can ask to use it when they’re done. If it’s too hard to wait, you can come to get me, and I can help you.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it right away, but you’re starting to lay the neural pathways of regulation.

After your child has calmed down, you can invite them to repair with their friend. Notice that I didn’t say that you should ask them to apologize.

You can say, “Are you ready to go play again? I think maybe it scared your friend when you were shouting. Is there anything you can do to make them feel better?”

Approaching the conversation like this helps the friend feel better and helps your child feel like a good person again.

Rest assured that this is all normal behaviour and doesn’t mean your child will grow up without social skills. Hang in there.

Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and her 15 and 18-year-old kids. Her 22-year-old son has launched.

Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to “we’ve got this!”

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