Meltdowns and tantrums are a normal part of growing up. All children have them. Contrary to what your friends or your interfering aunt may say, they certainly don’t mean that you are a bad parent or that your baby or toddler has problems. They are related to your child’s unique sensory temperament and developing brain, which means that some babies and toddlers are more inclined to have these emotional outburst than others.
If your baby hasn’t had one yet, don’t think “It will never happen”. I promise you that it will! And that’s not a bad thing. Having an emotional outburst while you are young, with a mom or dad or aunt or grandparent around who is able to help you find ways to make sense of all that emotions and guide your behaviour, is a wonderful opportunity for brain development and learning.
It’s important to understand that there is a difference between meltdowns and tantrums.
Once you understand this, then you can practise ways of managing it correctly. The result is your baby learning a very important (if not the most important) life skill.
First there’s the meltdowns
The peak age for meltdowns is eighteen to twenty-four months. Some have it earlier and for others it continues throughout toddlerhood. And don’t forget that adolescents and even us as adults can have the occasional meltdown.
Big feelings like frustration, anger, disappointment and fear overwhelms little underdeveloped brains. It causes the primitive emotional part of the brain to be in the driving seat. And the thinking part of your baby’s brain is shutting off. The result is a hissy fit over something as apparently silly as having to share a favourite toy, having play interrupted, having to get into the car, having to put on a jersey or teeth brushed. Thinking being switched off also results in poor impulse control – making it difficult for a little kiddo to wait. If they want something they want it NOW!
But there’s hope. Between three and four years, with your toddler’s improved language skills, he is learning impulse control, his frustration tolerance is increasing and, owing to a more developed thinking brain, the frequency and intensity of his meltdowns will decrease.
Then there’s the tantrums
For some toddlers, however, the increase in the ability to use the thinking brain may lead to more deliberate and calculated behaviour. And this results in the nasty old tantrum. Caused by the desire to control and manipulate. If your toddler sees that they work then they will increase. He will learn that he is able to manipulate you in order to get what he wants.
The secret lies in walking closer or walking away
A baby or toddler having a meltdown needs someone who will move closer, give them a hug, talk softly and help find ways to calm down. Walking closer will help your baby or toddler feel safe and understood. With time she will learn to manage big feelings without falling apart.
A baby or toddler having a tantrum need someone who can set the boundaries, give choices for expected behaviour and then walk away. Walking away tells your toddler that her manipulative behaviour will not cause you to give in.
Lizanne du Plessis is the author of Raising Happy Children. She is an experienced occupational therapist with a special interest in the identification and treatment of children with sensory processing disorder. She presents training and workshops for parents, teachers and professionals and contributes to professional publications and magazines. Lizanne feels passionate about empowering parents and her work has enabled thousands of parents and professionals to discover and understand their child’s true nature, support their development, manage daily challenges and build strong relationships. Visit Lizanne’s blog at www.lizanneduplessis.com to read more as she continues her quest of raising happy kids and being a joyful parent, follow her speaking schedule and join in the conversation with other intentional parents.
When I asked my four year-old what is three plus one, my husband whispered behind his breath: “definitely not four”. The initial excitement and novelty of having a new little baby in the house has worn off and our sweet-natured first-born has turned into a monster. It is clear that it has become a competition of note. The rules of the game are: do anything to get attention - nag, complain, say “no” to everything, cry at a drop of a hat, throw yourself on the floor and refuse to do anything on your own. The love-triangle between me, my first-born and my husband has become a love-square. I’m wondering how I’m going to do this without losing it all – my joy, compassion, patience and sense of humour!
As humans we are wired for relationships. Our brains are programmed to form strong emotional bonds with other people. But as natural as it seems, it’s not always easy. At the best of times, relationships can get complicated, difficult and, truth be told, messy. But that is exactly where we as parents come into the picture. We have power in the sculpting process of our children’s brains. We don’t just have to sit back and watch nature do its job. We can, and should help our children in setting the stage for developing the skills to establishing strong, deep and meaningful relationships.
From the first time when your baby looks you in the eye, the building blocks for relating and communicating are taking shape. If your relationship with your baby, toddler and child is filled with lots of cuddles and loads of play, you are physically changing the structure of his brain, in a positive way. When your child is having fun within your warm and loving relationship, his brain is flooded with feel-good hormones. Your child learns that human relationships feel good.
Relationships and the effect on the brain
Healthy relationships results in healthy brains. A healthy relationship is one that is characterized by warmth, compassion, kindness and lots of empathy. Most of the time. Not all of the time. We’re human after all and expecting all of our interactions to always be perfect, is unrealistic. Difficult times in relationships are wonderful opportunities for learning how to deal with negative emotions and conflict. As long as your family relationships are filled with empathy, warmth, compassion and kindness most of the time, they are healthy and that will result in the growing and developing of healthy brains.
Your baby’s first experience of a relationship is with you. With the arrival of a new sibling, your growing child now has to make sense of that relationship too. Feelings of resentment, jealousy, frustration and isolation sets in and this overwhelms a young, undeveloped brain. And because little brains don’t know what to do with these feelings, it causes stress and an overwhelming urge for attention. It is that urge that results in behaviour which you might find difficult to explain, understand and manage.
Tips to nurture sibling relationships
Playing with your child in a special way, a way in which your child is the boss and leads the play, will strengthen the emotional bond between you and your child. It has a massive influence on the way that your child behaves. It is incredibly powerful. Your child’s self-esteem will improve because he feels that his ideas matter. Through the loving and playful encounters, feel-good hormones are released and his behaviour will improve. Self-regulation improves because through your time together your child is able to make sense of how he feels.
Set aside 15-30 minutes per day to play one-to-one with your child. Use a timer to indicate the beginning and end. Switch off your phone. Be present – physically and emotionally. Say to your child that this is your special time to play together. Ask what he would like to play and go with that. You might be having a tea-party for the gazillions time, play dress-up, or even bang and crash toy cars off mountain cliff. Just let your child be. Keep back on all judgement – whether its praise or criticism. Get involved in the game as much as you can. Step out of your adult shoes, pretend you’re a child and have fun!
This is probably the single best piece of advice that takes the biggest investment on your side, but bears the biggest fruit. Trust me.
Rough and tumble and other physical play, like blowing raspberries and chasing, also releases the feel-good-hormones. Make physical play part of your daily interaction with your child. This is a great way for dads to get involved too. Throw your child up in the air, hold him tight and roll with him, let him sit on your knees and play horsey-horsey, turn him upside down and swing him by his feet.
Nurture with rituals and predictable routines
Rituals and routines make us feel safe. For little children it helps make sense of this big overwhelming world. Attempt to keep things predictable and within a set, yet flexible routine as much as you possibly can. Especially those rituals and routines that your older child enjoys, like the bath time and bedtime routine and your once-a-week popcorn and movie nights. Resist establishing new routines and attempting new development stages, like potty training or going from half-day nursery to full-day nursery in those first few months after the arrival of the new baby.
Stick to the rules
Have a clear set of family rules which are based on kindness, goodness and respect for others. ”No hitting, no biting, no hurting in this house”. “We share our toys”, “We say sorry” and “We ask for help”. When you discipline, do so in a calm but firm way. Not by shaming or blaming.
Reward positive behaviour
Use different methods of rewarding good behaviour. Sometimes a simple sentence such as: “I am so proud of you” or “You shared beautifully with your sister” is enough. At other times the act of putting stickers on a chart and seeing how it becomes more over time, can be very encouraging and motivating to children. Some children might respond well to special treats and gifts, while others enjoy special times with you.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
It may be difficult, but try to ignore negative behaviour, especially those things that don’t interfere with your family rules and won’t cause harm to others and the environment.
Show that you care
Show sympathy when your child is distressed. Go down on your knees, put your child on your lap. Children who experience care and kindness from an early age, are kind and caring towards others.
Help your child to make sense of the negative emotions that he is feeling
Children need lots of attention for healthy brain development. The problem is that if they don’t get the attention they crave, they discover ways that guarantee getting attention, even if the attention they get from you are negative, like scolding and punishment.
We need to help our child with the big feelings they are having. When it comes to sibling relationships, children usually experience painful feelings like disappointment, jealously, loss and frustration. Big painful feelings activate the stress chemicals in the child’s brain and body. If we punish the child when they are having an emotional outburst, we are giving them the message that it is not okay to have these feelings and over time he will shut off or develop more challenging and negative behaviour. In situations like this, the child will not learn to manage stress.
Help your child to name his feelings. Say things like “I can see you feel frustrated because your toy broke”, “I understand that you angry because mommy can’t play with you now”. Read your favourite stories together, look at the emotions that the people, animals and even animated toys are portraying and say, “The rabbit looks sad. How do you look when you’re sad?” Give opportunities for expression of emotions. Hit pillows, throw water balloons, stamp your feet while pretending to be animals and say “~Sometimes when I’m angry my heart beats fast. When I hit a pillow or stamp my feet I feel better. But I never hit somebody else.”
By Lizanne du Plessis
Lizanne du Plessis is an Occupational Therapist and the author of Raising Happy Children. She is an experienced occupational therapist with a special interest in the identification and treatment of children with sensory processing disorder. For more information from Lizanne du Plessis go to www.lizanneduplessis.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a colour-coded parenting handbook that answers all our questions, addresses all our fears and gives guarantees that what we’re doing is the right thing. However, not only is there no such book, there is also no perfect way and no perfect parent.
Parenting is an ongoing process of learning who our individual child is and what he needs to thrive. Being a mom takes courage, strength, wisdom and patience.
So dear mom, today we want to remind you that you are loved and that you are brave!
Download The Brave Mom’s Manifesto here: http://www.lizanneduplessis.com/the-brave-moms-manifesto/#more-390
settling in the evening
Your baby’s bedtime routine must be calming and consistent because it acts as a cue for his brain to start shifting down into the drowsy state for bedtime. In the early evening your baby is very susceptible to sensory overload and melt downs. Be sure to be home, in a calming space, not socialising and keep exciting activities to a minimum. Start to introduce a predictable routine leading up to bedtime. Aim for a bedtime of between 6pm and 7pm. The time for bed should be related to the time he woke from his afternoon sleep.
the late afternoon sleep
This sleep can be tricky and you may need to adjust his awake and sleep times:
For sleeps before 4.30pm, let your baby sleep for one sleep cycle of 45 minutes.
If he sleeps for longer, wake him by 5.15pm so that he will settle easily at bedtime.
If the sleep is due after 4.30pm, let your baby only have a catnap - in other words wake him at 5.15pm, so that he does not have difficulty falling asleep in the evening.
If the last daytime sleep is due any time after 5.30pm, just put him down for the night with an early bedtime if he is exhausted. An appropriate bedtime for babies of this age is any time from 5.30pm to 7pm.
Babysense Secret, 2011, p. 135
the bedtime routine
A calm bath time can be difficult to achieve if your baby loves the excitement of the water, but try to keep your interactions with each other muted.
Follow bath time with a soothing massage in his bedroom with dimmed lights. Do not take your baby out of his room between 6pm and 6am – in this way he will think the world ceases to exist while he is asleep. You can help your baby wind down further by reading, singing softly to the Baby Sense Lullabies instrumental music or playing Baby Sense White Noise music. If he enjoys massage and finds it calming, massage him with soothing oil. Dress him in soft night clothes, a good quality night-time nappy and Baby Sense Sleeping Bag if he started to kick-off his swaddle blanket.
Encourage him to use a sleep soother such as the Baby Sense Taglet and feed him his last feed of the day in the dark. Keep him in your arms for this feed so that he does not associate his bed with food. If he is wakeful after the last feed you can rock your baby or just hold him till he is drowsy. Take your time and relish these quiet moments with your baby – they’re few and far between.
Place him in his cot (not head first as this will stimulate him into a more awake state) when he is relaxed and drowsy but not yet asleep. Say good night and leave the room. Do not hang around to see what he is up to. Many babies chatter, move around and might even play for a bit before dropping off to sleep.
Faure, M & Richardson, A: Baby Sense. Metz Press, South Africa, 2002
Faure, M: The Babysense Secret. Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2011
Kurtz, E; Mindell, J; Telofski, L; Wiegand, B: A Nightly Bedtime Routine: Impact on Sleep in Young Children and Maternal Mood. SLEEP, Vol. 32, No. 5, 2009
When children approach the age of 2 years, they come to realize that they are independent people, and in an attempt to be more independent they feel the need to test their boundaries. Tips on how to interact with a No! Me! Mine! Now! Toddler.
Are these pictures part of your and your toddler’s life? You might experience tantrums, handling a non-compliant child or you might have to put up with defiance.
These behaviours are frustrating, but when children approach the age of 2 years, they come to realize that they are independent people, and in an attempt to be more independent they feel the need to test their boundaries.
A toddler is constantly testing the boundaries
Thus, the main theme of toddlerhood is one of asserting the self and the exciting new idea that they can control the world. They think: No! Me! Mine! Now! They also respond best to language that is about them. All in all they are very self-centred and expect the world to adapt to their every need!
Are you listening to your toddler?
Listening and talking to toddlers is as much about reading what they’re saying with their bodies as it is about hearing their words. Stuck for words, a toddler will use actions to communicate needs and wants.
Connect on his level
Every parent learns very soon that yelling from the other side of the room, seldom has a positive response. Walk with your child, squat down or pick the child up, make eye contact, stay calm, lower the tone of your voice and use familiar words in very short sentences or use only one word at a time.
Meet his needs
Read the cues – your child might be scared,hungry, tired or wants to play outside, put words to these needs for your child to learn about words but also about his needs. “You are hungry. I’ll give you a biscuit.”
Your child might simply not know what to do about a situation and which words to use. Consider all possible options and help your child to communicate his or her needs.
Listen and react
Toddlers do not have a concept of time. To wait 2 minutes or 15 minutes for your response, “feels” the same to them. If you do not respond almost immediately, the behaviour and needs will escalate and you’ll teach your child to overreact to gain your attention.
Read between the lines
Watch your child’s gestures and tone of voice. Even if you have no idea what he is yelling about, show him that you understand that he is angry. Give names to emotions by saying things like: “you are angry” or “you are sad”. When you give him the words, he can label the feeling and might be able to use it in the future.
Words or no words
Avoid too many words – long explanations go over their heads. Keep phrases short and repeat yourself often. Revisit the words you are often using.
You can often sense something is coming up by reading your child’s body language. He might yawn, give telltale signs of hunger, looks overwhelmed (especially on outings to unfamiliar places) or lose interest in the task at hand. Signs such as these can indicate that you should tend to your toddler’s needs before it is necessary for the child to react in a negative way.
Just as a toddler will ask a million questions, he will also want to tell you a million things about his passion. Listen. And use it as a learning experience. Does he love cars? Build ramps to teach cause and effect, talk about colours, identify cars on the road, make associations, e.g. 4x4 vehicles, racing cars, motor homes, family cars.
To provide for the sense of “I am in control of this big world” give your toddler choices. If you just say: “put your shoes on it is cold” you might be faced with a negative “I don’t want to wear shoes!”. The best way is to give a choice from 2 objects, e.g. “It is cold outside. Would you like to wear the new blue shoes or your old brown ones?” The child feels in control because he has made a choice.
Toddlers love to copy parents and other adults – to our amusement! It is cute to see how accurate they can mimic, saying the exact words and copy the exact body language. Thus, tread carefully and ensure that you behave in a way that you want them to copy, e.g. if you say that swearing is wrong, don’t swear; if you say that your child should eat all the food on the plate, set the example; if you don’t want your child to yell, don’t yell.
Praise, praise, praise
Experts all agree that the best way is to reinforce good behaviour. Look out for your child when he is behaving correctly and give him praise and acknowledgement. Do not ignore your toddler when he is playing quietly on his own. Walk to him, sit next to him and give him praise for the good behaviour.
Always tell the truth. A white lie might be a quick way to get your child to react in a specific way, but in the end your child will not know when to trust you. It might work once or twice, but it will break the trust between you and your child.
Warn, and then act. Kids do not remember what they did wrong an hour after the incident. Show them the consequences of bad behaviour as close to the incident as possible.
Show respect. Stay calm. Get down to your child’s level and talk slowly; acknowledging the obstacle, e.g. “Swinging is fun. But it is time to go home now.” Then act.
Stick to a routine. Avoid unpleasant surprises by letting your child know what to expect out of each day. This will help your child to feel in control, which will make him much more agreeable. Keep the morning and bedtime routines predictable. Inform your child where you are going, what you are going to do and what you’ll expect of him before you go on an outing.
By Marga Grey
Marga Grey is the author of Sensible Stimulation, Marga Grey (B.OT, M.Sc OT) is a paediatric occupational therapist who practised in South Africa for decades. She presented many workshops to parents, teachers and therapists on many different aspects of child development, and specific therapeutic procedures. For more information from Marga Grey go to or email her at email@example.com