Uh oh. He came charging through, howling again. His little sister probably turned off Scooby Doo or something. Whatever had happened, our three year old was not loving it – and boy was he letting everyone know.
Tears, sobbing and that howl – I had to stop it.
There was no point telling him to calm down – so I told him to squeeze my finger.
Now, I’m no child psychologist – but I am a teacher and a mom of three so I’ve been around a lot of child behavior over the years. This is one of my favourite tricks – it’s easy, free and needs no preparation except reading the rest of this post.
Is your toddler struggling with emotions?
Toddlers and preschoolers. Little people with big emotions.
Many times, those emotions become completely overwhelming and then you get a toddler tantrum. And equally often, the causes of those meltdowns seem tiny and insignificant or just don’t make sense at all.
So many times I’ve heard myself say, “This child just doesn’t make sense.”
But those emotions are real and our little people need to learn to deal with them – and they will. But until then, they need a little help to get back on an even emotional keel.
That’s where this post will help you.
I want to share with you a simple plan for settling a wildly emotional child. Two of them are distractions that really work and the third is how to get back to an emotional connection and really move forward from the situation.
Distracting but also figuring out the problem
The first stage of calming an upset small child is about getting them to stop yelling. If you can do that, they will probably also stop crying. I use a mixture of distraction and empathy to achieve this.
So far so good but I read something a while ago about how distracting a child to calm them down meant you were failing to respond to the actual problem that caused the tantrum. Like waving a shiny thing in front of them until they stop crying and then just moving on.
It made a lot of sense and for a while I wondered whether the method I’m about to describe wasn’t what I should be doing after all.
Then I realised that I DO address the problem with this method. Calming them down with distraction isn’t the solution, it’s the beginning of solving the problem or helping them to deal with it. Unless they stop yelling, you can’t have a conversation and work through things.
Will this work with your little one?
I think so. This method – or a variation of it that you create after reading this – has a really good chance of popping the bubble of anger that surrounds your child when they are very, very upset.
If your child has a medical condition or other specific need then it might not be right for them. That’s your call.
All you really need for this to work is for your child to be old enough to have a conversation with. If they are very little and still learning to talk, they might not be ready. In that case, just hugging tight and possibly offering to nurse of you’re a breastfeeding mom is what I find works best.
So, I guess that means they need to be 2 for this to be ideal for them.
Step 1 – hug that child
Regularly, I find my three year old yelling uncontrollably about something and the first thing I want to do is make him stop. Not just because it’s annoying for the rest of us and kind of hard to ignore, but because he’s upset and I want to make it better. That’s my job, isn’t it?
So the first step in this plan is to grab that child and hug them tight. Pick them up if they’re on the floor, go to them wherever they are and offer your love and security.
Step 2 – tell them that you know what’s wrong
Sometimes it’s hard for angry toddlers and preschoolers to make themselves understood – especially in the middle of a meltdown. But they really want you to understand.
Squeeze them tightly and repeat I know as you rock them.
‘I know, you wanted to watch Scooby Doo.’
‘I know, he took your toy.’
Having you understand what is wrong is very powerful for calming a child down. Just knowing what is wrong and repeating back to them what that was – many times if you need to – can be very helpful. It seems to ease their frustration. Indeed, sometimes, snuggles and empathy are all it takes to calm a sad / angry kid.
When you don’t actually know what’s wrong, take guesses and look for evidence. Ask your other kids if they were there when the tantrum started.
If you haven’t found the root of the problem or little one is still raising the roof, it’s time to distract them. Prepare to unleash your inner mom or dad clown.
Step 3 – strategies for distracting an angry toddler
If they’re still very upset and you need to find a way in, doing something silly can often get your tantruming toddler’s attention. Exactly what that silly thing should be depends on your parenting style and your child’s age. Here are a couple of things that work really well.
#1 Squeeze my finger
(Not to be confused with pull my finger unless you feel like that’s the way you want to take this…)
For this to work, your child just has to be old enough to follow a basic instruction. Offer them a finger and ask them to squeeze it. When they do, act like they hurt you. If they’re anything like my son, they will probably laugh like a drain. Often, if he’s very upset, I need to get him to do it a few times before he begins to brighten up. I tend to say things like,
“I can’t believe you squeezed so hard.” Or,
“You’re so strong!” Or,
“Hey! Gently with my finger!” to reaffirm that he’s supposedly hurting me.
It’s about the laughter
You’ve probably already worked out that the finger-squeezing and pretending-it-hurts could be anything. Anything that gets your kid’s attention and makes them laugh. You could absolutely come up with your own version and I bet it would work just as well.
Getting them to laugh or at least engage with you is how you begin to get them out of the tantrum.
You could try getting them to pull a face, or pull one yourself, or do a secret handshake that you have. Anything that might make your upset child laugh – even for a second – could begin to diffuse the situation.
Often that’s all it takes to get my son engaging with me in a positive way (i.e. not yelling at me) but if he needs more distracting, I jump to strategy #2.
#2 count to 3
He’s old enough to count to ten so if I need a different tactic, I say,
“Let’s count to 3.” And then I do it wrong.
1,3,2 or 3,1,2 or anything close to correct but wrong. I do this because I know that however angry he is in that moment, he will have to correct me. Sometimes he sounds cross when he corrects me but it doesn’t matter because the distraction is working.
After he corrects me, I do it again – and get it wrong again but in a different way. This doesn’t always make him laugh but it does bring him back into the here and now and out of his temper.
If you can see that they’ve had enough of this, ask them to show you how to count to 3 correctly, then congratulate them and give them a hug. They should be calmer now.
You could adapt this strategy to anything that your child will know to be incorrect. Calling someone by the wrong name or offering to read them a book but reading it backwards could work just as well.
What do I do after distracting my angry toddler?
Once you have their attention, that’s it. You’re back in the driving seat. Now go back to steps #1 and #2 and hug it out. Your child needs the love, connection and empathy that a hug brings in a neat package to really calm down. And you really want to say I know and then state the problem at least once so they feel heard. (I was amazed how much that helped my child.)
Sometimes, kids get upset because they want things they can’t have, for whatever reason. That can be super hard for them and they might take a while to calm down again, even when you’ve got them out of the yelling and hyperventilating stage. Showing empathy for their feelings helps here – especially if you know there’s a conversation to be had but now’s not the time. (Because that would only set them off again.)
I would hug now, empathise now but have the real chat later.
What if they just need to yell?
You’ve probably seen this situation – the little person who is SO MAD about something that nothing seems to help. It might seem totally irrational to you or they might have behaved badly and be responding negatively to the consequences. Whatever, sometimes they just need to yell a bit.
I almost always use the method I described above to calm my 3 year old and it almost always works.
When it doesn’t, I let him yell a bit. After a couple of minutes I try the whole thing again, starting from the hug because even though that little guy might be really hard work right now, he’s still MY little guy and I love him and want him to know.
Do you have a sure-fire way to stop a toddler meltdown in its tracks?
If you do, I would love to hear it! Comment below or get in touch via the contact form at the bottom of the page.
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