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For Parents Meltdowns – the secrets that science can tell us.
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Meltdowns – the secrets that science can tell us.

Meltdowns, tantrums, the terrible twos…. The toddler years are often characterised as a challenging time and there is some truth to the stereotype. 85 % of kids in the early years will have something we would all recognise as ‘a tantrum’. In fact, it’s considered a normal developmental stage. (There are rare exceptions: older children who have daily, intense, long episodes without any obvious trigger may need additional family support). Toddlers don’t have many words to describe their emotions. But it’s the very time their brain is driving them to find some control in the world. So, it’s hardly surprising that this period of life come with intense emotions.  We know that some kids are more prone to having meltdowns than others. These kids are likely feel any emotion more intently – known as high ‘emotional reactivity’. The scientific literature, until very recently, only really noted that ‘temper tantrums’ were characteristic of the 2 to 5 year-old population but not very much else. Now, however science has taken a closer look…


What is a meltdown?

A meltdown is a period of explosive and uncontrolled negative emotions. Studies, using careful observation of toddlers and parent interviews show that these meltdowns are not just one emotion. Most often meltdowns are a short burst of anger followed by a longer period of sadness or despair. Unpacking the specific emotions in a meltdown is a parenting gift. This is because it gives you a chance to help ‘organize’ and label these feelings for your toddler. Therefore, this is the beginning of your child’s emotional literacy. If we can label, articulate, and manage our emotions appropriately, we have significantly better life-long wellbeing and much lower chances of mental health problems.


How can I best manage a meltdown?

All very well you might say, I get it but what exactly should I do? This three-step plan will help your little one find calm more quickly, and form an investment their emotional literacy skills.


Step 1 – Make a diary and look out for triggers.

You’ve probably heard this advice before. However, the added value here is that you can use triggers to help your toddler understand their feelings. So, for example, you might notice that getting dressed just before breakfast is a common meltdown time. Is hunger the trigger? Perhaps it is lack of choice over clothes. It could even be a sensory sensitivity (common in pre-schoolers) because that t shirt is ‘so scratchy’. You get the picture. Your job is to voice that emotion, perhaps phrased in an open way or as a question. (‘This t shirt might be a bit rough on your skin and I wonder if that makes you feel irrigated’ or ‘You’ve not had any breakfast yet, I think you might be hungry’). Of course, knowing the triggers also means you are much more able to nimbly side-step emotional earthquakes.


Step 2 – Name the emotions you see.

Brain science tells us that if we name our own emotion (or if someone we trust names it for us), the emotional centres of our brain settle more quickly and so we feel calmer more quickly. For toddlers it usually means they need you to name their emotion. Do this time and time again and you will find your child is beginning to link the feelings in their body and thoughts in their mind with a label. This is particularly crucial for the hard emotions like anger or sadness, as research shows us that families sometimes shy away from talking about these. The long-term aim is that kids learn to say how they feel themselves, but this skill takes until the mid-twenties to develop (and many adults still have not learnt it). Tots likely won’t manage anything more than voicing they feel good or bad/ happy or sad at first. If your child names their state, even if they use an unconventional word, make a big deal of it, show your admiration, because that’s the beginning of emotional self-awareness – that that is well-being gold dust.


Step 3 – Stay with them.

Now, for some parents this might be a controversial piece of advice, particularly those who use time-out and naughty steps. And though there is evidence that these strategies do decrease the frequency of the behaviour, there is a risk that they leave a toddler ashamed, and alone without any way of making sense or labelling the intense sensations there are experiencing. So, though you should be careful not to actively reinforce meltdowns with a lot of attention – negative or positive – consider staying alongside your toddler in a low-key way, labelling (and so organizing) the emotion, and the outburst will subside quicker. Remember the new evidence about the ‘shades’ of emotion in a meltdown – a burst of anger and then despair? You might be able to spot when the emotion changes and you can describe that to your toddler too. If you manage this, give yourself a gold star because that really is advanced level parenting.


Meltdowns – the secrets that science can tell us.

Use the secrets that science tells us to manage meltdowns in the moment, decrease the length of time your toddler is in distress and support their emotional literacy. You are teaching them a powerful message: in our family we talk about the tough emotions, we figure it out calmly, which is fundamental to building your relationship through childhood and into the teenage years.  Pretty soon you will be having incredible conversations together about their highs and lows, hopes and fears with that comes a deeper understanding of your child and a bond that will protect them a lifetime.


Meltdowns – the secrets that science can tell us.

About the Author.

Dr Jane Gilmour

Consultant Clinical Psychologist

Course Director Infancy and Early Childhood Development, UCL


Read Dr Gilmour´s book.

Author: How to have Incredible Conversations with your Child

Co-author Dr Bettina Hohnen (Clinical Psychologist and Snr Teaching Fellow, UCL)

For more hints and tips follow Dr Gilmour and Dr Bettina Hohnen’s Instagram page @incredibleconversation


You can find a further article about using routines to manage meltdowns here.

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Lisa Forsythe

Teacher, mum and author of Simple Activities for Toddlers: A Practical Play-At-Home Handbook for Parents.