If you are the parent to a toddler or preschooler, then you know: Tantrums happen. Sometimes, try as you might, there is simply no avoiding an epic meltdown, whether it’s at mealtime (no, just because you add milk to a bowl of rainbow sprinkles does not mean they count as breakfast cereal), bedtime (no, we can’t read the same book just one more time), or out in public (no, we can’t actually buy this entire shelf of toys at Target).
But, as I discuss in detail in my new book, The Tantrum Survival Guide: Tune In to Your Toddler’s Mind (and Your Own) to Calm the Craziness and Make Family Fun Again, tantrums are best understood not in isolation—solely as emotions and behaviors that children demonstrate—but rather as interactions between children and their caregivers. The good news is that the way you respond to your child’s tantrum behavior is critically important and can have a big impact on both how long a tantrum lasts and how bad it gets. The more you are able to keep your cool during your little one’s emotional outburst, the more likely it will pass relatively quickly and painlessly.
But how on earth to do that?
The ultimate goal is to learn to pause between your child’s meltdown and your response. As so many meditation teachers note when they talk about detachment, there is true power in that pause. Simply taking a moment before you react preserves your agency and allows you to choose your words and actions thoughtfully and intentionally. Is it difficult to do? Yes. Is it impossible to master? I wouldn’t know. Does it get easier with practice? Yes. To that I can attest, both as a professional and as a mom.
So, let’s say you’re in it: Your toddler has gone limp and is sprawled crying across the carpet. Here are nine mindfulness techniques, some drawn from my book, to help you take that pause, keep calm, and parent on.
1. Take three seconds to check in with yourself
Literally, just three seconds. Take a breath. Are you hungry? Tired? Stressed about a work email? These outside factors can have a huge impact on your interactions with your child. Try to imagine—and then channel—how you would respond right now if you were living your best life (i.e., well-rested, well-fed, and freshly showered). I’m not suggesting that you try to remain supernaturally calm, but even just an awareness of your own emotional state can help you stay grounded.
The other day, as my four-year-old son started demanding to eat something other than what we had prepared for dinner, I suddenly realized that I myself hadn’t eaten since breakfast. This awareness alone helped me respond calmly to my son, as well as grab a healthy snack from the fridge to refuel.
2. Find your feet
This is a classic mindfulness exercise that’s really easy to do—even in the presence of a hysterical toddler. When you feel your blood pressure rising and you think you are about to lose it, focus on your feet. Feel your soles pressing into the ground. Notice how the earth is holding you up. Wiggle your toes inside your shoes. Notice any sensations in the muscles and tendons. Then, refocus your attention on your child. Hopefully, you will feel a bit more grounded.
A client recently told me that she not only used this technique when her daughter began to melt down about not getting another cookie, but also went a step further to narrate what she was doing aloud: “I’m beginning to feel really frustrated myself, so I am going to take a moment to feel my feet.” This approach has the added benefits of modeling a great calming strategy for your child (and young children learn a ton just by watching, and imitating, the adults around them), as well as possibly distracting your child from the crisis at hand.
In this case, her daughter was so taken aback by her mother’s new and unexpected response that she said she, too, was going to feel her feet, and then proceeded to attempt to stand on one foot while “feeling” the other. Mother and daughter ended up in a fun and connected balancing contest rather than a power struggle over dessert.
3. Be present and listen
I know, I know. This sounds too easy, right? But in Western culture, we very rarely sit still and just listen to anything, let alone a child having a tantrum. Our instinct is to rush in and distract, or to fix things and make everything okay. But sometimes what will actually make you both feel better is simply to be present—to sit and be with all of the distress without trying to cut it short.
4. Use touch—when it’s appropriate
If soothing words are not enough to calm your child, consider responding physically. This can mean placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, rubbing his back as he kicks and screams on the floor, or enveloping him in a bear hug. Of course, watch his cues to make sure this is something he wants and needs; sometimes when emotions are running high, touch can feel intrusive. But, much of the time, being affectionate can help you both regulate your emotions and calm down.
5. Shift your attention to yourself
Put aside for a moment what’s going on with your child and shift your attention to yourself. What, exactly, do you need right now in order not to lose it? Maybe it’s that piece of chocolate stashed in your purse, a spritz of soothing essential oils, or blasting Aretha (RIP) on Spotify. Whatever it is, this is the time to go for it. When we exude calm and stability, and the confidence that we can handle whatever our little ones are throwing our way, our children, in turn, feel safe and contained and are better able to soothe themselves.
No, I’m not talking about an ominous countdown (You have until the count of 5 to…). Rather, the “five senses” mindfulness exercise is a great one to do in the midst of a meltdown, and it can even (at times) be done with your child, helping you both to calm down together. The idea is to think of five things you can see (say them out loud), four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Focusing on your sensory experiences lands you back in your body, and in a place of emotional calm.
7. Practice loving-kindness—towards yourself
In mindfulness, loving-kindness refers to tenderness and thoughtfulness toward others. But in moments of high stress (like, um, when your toddler goes into plank position as you try to buckle him into his car seat), it’s especially important to extend that same goodwill toward yourself. Take a second to think about what you would say to your best friend if they were in your place right now. Probably something like, “You’re OK; you’ve got this. This is a really lousy moment, and I’m sorry you’re in it. You are a good parent.” Now say the same thing to yourself—and mean it.
8. Radically accept toddlerhood
Radical acceptance means accepting life on life’s terms, rather than resisting what you can’t control or change. You know what fits squarely in that latter category? Your toddler’s brain.
As discovered in a large-scale research survey, there’s a significant mismatch between the extent to which parents feel children should be able to control themselves and the extent to which children’s young and still-developing brains realistically do allow for this control. Forty-two percent of parents believed that children can stay calm in the face of frustration by age two, while in reality this capacity only begins to develop when kids are three and a half to four years old, and it takes several more years to fully master.
You may want your little one’s brain to be further along than it is or believe it should be further along than it is. But it’s not. Facing this reality and accepting it can help foster an understanding that your child is not acting this way on purpose, which then increases your ability to quit taking it personally during heated moments.
9. Use the tantrum as an opportunity for reflection
Technically, this is a tip for after the meltdown, but it’s an important one. Every tantrum is an opportunity for us, as parents, to learn and grow. Was it inevitable? Was there a point in the chain of events when things could have gone differently? The more you incorporate this reflection into the tantrum timeline, the easier it will be to deescalate tantrums in the future.
These tips are not going to stop your child from ever having a tantrum. And they’re not going to stop you from ever getting upset in response. But they will help you stay calmer and more grounded some of the time for some of the tantrums. And, when it comes to parenting, that’s a pretty big win.