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4 Quick questions to ask when your toddler is melting down

A mother holding a crying toddler daughter indoors in kitchen

Ground Picture | Shutterstock | Altered by Aleteia

Caroline Brock - published on 07/01/18 - updated on 10/03/23

A temper tantrum may be a sign of an unmet need. A few simple questions can help you get to the bottom of the real problem.

We’ve all been there. You’re at the grocery store, or you’re about to leave for the park, or you’re at a birthday party, or it’s bedtime — it can be a million different situations that end in the same place: your child collapsing onto the floor in tears and screams. It’s overwhelming. It’s often humiliating. But it often boils down to one of these four simple issues. Take a deep breath, regulate your own emotions, and ask yourself these simple questions:

Has my child had enough food and sleep?

In my experience, this is by far the most common issue when my kids are fussy. If it’s hunger, you can …

  • Make sure they eat protein, stat. It’s especially important at breakfast! Here is a list of good sources of protein.
  • Make sure their daily routine includes regular snack times to keep “hanger” at bay.
  • If you have picky eaters, involve them in the food prep and presentation. Make it a fun, positive experience!

If it’s fatigue, you can …

  • Step back and examine your child’s routine. Are they going to bed too late? Try moving their bedtime routine up by 15-minute increments every few days until you find what works.
  • Create a bedtime routine that’s calm and soothing; leave plenty of time for the transition from play time to sleep time.
  • Even if your child has dropped naptime, schedule in some “rest time” during the day. They may not fall asleep, but a chunk of quiet time may be all they need to feel refreshed.

Has my child had too much screen time?

Children’s brains are simply not equipped to deal with the overstimulation that screens create. The science is clear on this one. It’s too much for their brains to process.

That said, going screen-free is undeniably tough. Screens are everywhere in our culture, so quitting them completely can seem impossible. Even if you can’t cut it out altogether, try these strategies to reduce your kids’ exposure:

  • Three words: Get them outside. As author Richard Louv has pointed out, kids today are suffering from nature deficit disorder. Ecotherapy isn’t only great for kids — it has lots of health benefits for parents, too!
  • Make screen time a special treat. We instituted family movie night on Friday or Saturday night. Once we did this, the question changed from Can I watch TV? to Is it family movie night tonight? 
  • Take a break from your phone. I noticed that the times I was most likely to use a screen to entertain my kids were when I wanted to scroll mindlessly for a few minutes. It takes Herculean willpower but resist the urge to be on your phone when your kids are present.

Does my child need more independence?

Young children’s need to develop their intellect is usually recognized, but their need to develop their will is often overlooked. Because of this, a child can become frustrated, and might exert his will constantly or inappropriately. Encouraging your child’s independence wherever possible and channeling his need for autonomy can cut down on the power struggles.

  • Follow the rule often used in nursing homes: never do anything for a resident that they can do for themselves. With kids, there are two important pre-conditions: first, you have to be certain that the child truly knows how to do a given task, and second, be sure to leave lots of extra time for them to do it. You may have to show them a few times how to put on their shoes, and then schedule an extra 10-minute time cushion for them to do it themselves before you have to leave the house.
  • Go through your house at your child’s level to see what tweaks you can do to facilitate your child’s independence. Move the kid cups to a lower shelf in the kitchen so they can get their own water. Hang coat hooks at kid-level so they can get their own jacket. Use step stools and faucet extenders in bathrooms.
  • Give them a choice whenever possible. Your child doesn’t get a choice about the vast majority of her daily life. Avoid the battle of wills by offering an option alongside the non-negotiable: “It’s time to go.  Would you prefer to put on your shoes or jacket first?”

Are my expectations reasonable?

So often when we tell our kids to do something, or tell them not to do something, or how to do something, or how quickly to do something, it is for our convenience. We fail to treat children with the same dignity that we routinely give to others — for example, an elderly relative who moves more slowly than we do, or a friend with a physical disability who requires special assistance at times. In those situations, our expectations are aligned with the abilities of the other person, and our attitude toward them remains respectful and kind. With children, we must extend the same courtesy. Instead of seeing them as miniature adults and expecting adult levels of self-control, motor skills, or verbal ability, we need to see them as the unique beings they are and strive to ensure that our expectations are appropriate for their developmental level.

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