Everybody knows the phrase “the terrible twos.” But what makes the twos so special? Is it just because the phrase is so catchy? Because in my experience thus far as a parent – the twos are nothing compared to the threes. So what can I name the threes without using inappropriate language for this blog? I’ll just say I’m in the “thick of the threes” and we’ll see if the fours get any better. Regardless of exact age, this developmental stage is prime for emotional meltdowns that beg for a good bag of tricks to pull out when as a parent you feel like you’re living with Jekyll and Hyde. Kiddos at this age are smack in the transition from toddlers who need your constant attention to little “big kids” who want to do everything “all by myself.” If your young kiddo is ever like mine – on the floor screaming one minute because you turned off the light instead of her and then the next minute singing the Frozen soundtrack on the top of her lungs just as happy as can be – then this toolbox is for you.
Tricks in the midst of a meltdown:
- See if there’s a quick fix and fix it. This is different from giving in. Your child may be overloaded with sensory input – so you can remove her from the environment. She may be in the midst of the “do it myself” stage – so let her go back and turn the light on and then back off again “all by herself.”
- Check your own emotions. The more you let your emotions flare in the moment, the more likely your child’s emotions will rev up more. Try to get your child’s eye contact and use a calm, soft voice. Communicate that you care and you are listening. For me sometimes a mere reassurance to my daughter that “I will try” to do what she wants/needs in that moment allows her time to regain control of her emotions. This may work even if the promise seems utterly ridiculous (such as calmly reassuring her, “I will try to get your poop back” after she has been sobbing “I want my poop back!” for the last ten minutes after I made the drastic mistake of flushing her poop down the toilet instead of allowing her to do it)
- If you can get eye contact, try for deep breaths. Prompt your child to pause and count to ten to help slow down their heart rate. This may need to be taught and practiced ahead of time so your child knows what you mean during a meltdown.
- Distraction. It does wonders – especially if you can find something novel and fun. Ask your child a question. Tell her something silly. Point out an interesting object in the environment.
- Pair non-preferred/meltdown tasks with reinforcing tasks. “Just as soon as you brush your teeth, we can read the new books you got from the library.”
- Don’t attempt to reason when your child is well beyond rational thought. (Explaining the dynamics of toilet plumbing during the middle of a meltdown .. not a good idea)
- Sometimes firm consequences are needed. “It is time to go. If you don’t stand up and walk with me by the count of three, then I am taking away Elsa Bear for the night.”
Tricks immediately following a meltdown:
- Take a tip from the Frozen soundtrack and just “let it go.” The fact that my daughter can quickly shift to joyfully singing after a meltdown is a good thing. Now it’s my turn to move on.
- At times it can be good to debrief a little while after your child has calmed down. Perfect example occurred yesterday. After picking my daughter up from daycare, she had a complete meltdown on the drive home. Between her sobs I could only get out “I want Daddy” and “I want to go back to daycare.” I tried a few of the tricks above and she was finally able to calm down. Once at home, the moment she walked through the door she ran to my husband and adamantly stated, “You are bringing me to daycare tomorrow.” Then it occurred to me. I asked her, “Are you upset because you were the last of your friends to be picked up at daycare?” In a soft tone she said, “Yes. You were late and I didn’t like it.” We then could have a calm, productive conversation.
- Don’t be afraid to have a good laugh. Later that evening after the poop flushing meltdown I joked with my husband that I should have dropped a candy bar in the toilet and told our daughter her poop came back. He thought I should have just pooped myself. Nothing like poop humor to lighten things up after a long day.
- Take a breather yourself if you need one. Especially on bad days – you deserve it. Maybe a bubble bath after you finally get the kids to bed.
Tricks to prevent major meltdowns:
- Look for the warning signs. It’s a whole lot easier to blow out a lit candle than to put out a whole brush fire.
- Learn your child’s major triggers and work to eliminate them. I am never flushing the toilet again for my daughter. I try my best to frequently ask, “Do you want to do ____ or do you want me to do it?”
- Provide your child with choices to give them more control. “Which of these three shirts do you want to wear tomorrow?”
- Give your child advanced warning before transitions. “You have 5 more minutes to play and then we’re going upstairs for bath time.”
- Build more time in your schedule, particularly during high-potential meltdown times. My daughter’s worst meltdowns have occurred when we’re rushed. I’m late to work and she just won’t put on her socks! If it were summer, I’d take her to daycare barefoot!
- Prompt your child to use her words when she starts to whine or become frustrated. If she doesn’t have the largest vocabulary yet, give her the words to use. “It looks like you’re feeling mad because you can’t get that toy to work.”
- Noticing increasingly more misbehavior as a day progresses? Ask yourself a few questions. Is it time for a nap or quiet time? Does she need physical activity to let off some energy? Does she need more positive attention from me?
- Pick your battles. Do I love my daughter wearing the same Frozen shirt three times in the same week? No – but if it makes her happy and I’m doing another load of laundry anyway, then to me it’s worth preventing a meltdown.
- Praise, praise, praise when they’re doing right and be specific. “Thank you for putting away that puzzle. I really like how you listened to me right away.”
As exhausting as the “thick of the threes” is – I know looking back I’m going to miss this time period cause she’s already growing up so fast. So with that note, I try to make each week a little better than the last with fewer meltdowns and more joyful singing … Even if she does sing off key. But as my husband would say, “She got that from her Mama!”