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2023 Aug

Avoiding Toddler Meltdowns

How to prevent tantrums with preparation and understanding.

I know we have all seen it. It is late afternoon at the grocery store, and a toddler is melting down. There are tears and screams. The child is lying on the floor kicking. You feel bad for both the child and the parent. Could this be prevented?

Toddler meltdowns (or tantrums) are quite common in both girls and boys from the ages of 1 to 3 years. Toddlers are often unable to verbally explain that they are frustrated or upset, so they act out. This is their language for “I can’t take it anymore!” As their language skills improve with age, so does their behavior. You rarely see a meltdown in a 5-year-old child. The good news is you can help your child avoid these meltdowns.

Avoid the “Too’s”

Do not let your child get too hungry, too thirsty, or too tired. This is when they can melt down. Avoid too hot or too cold as well. Even too much activity or too much boredom can be an issue. Be sure that your child has been fed and gone to the potty before an outing. If they did not rest well last night, then know they are going to be tired, so adjust for this by providing a nap. Most meltdowns may be prevented with proper rest and diet.

Consider Illness

Sometimes kids act out when they do not feel well. Could there be an underlying health issue? Certain illnesses (ear infections, urinary tract infections) are not easily visible. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, reach out to your pediatric healthcare provider for an appointment.

Keep to a Schedule

Kids like predictability. They want to know what is going to happen next. This helps them know what to expect. They like it best when they understand the routine. Of course, there will be variations, but most days need to be routine.

Give Appropriate Choices

Try to not give choices that they can say “NO” to. Instead of asking “Do you want to take a bath?” ask “ Would you like to take your duck or your boat toy into the bath?” Instead of asking, “Are you ready to get dressed?” ask “Would you like to wear the white shirt or the green shirt today?” Toddlers want and need control, so give them appropriate options. Consider what the toddler can actually manage independently. Allow them to do what they can and assist them with what they cannot.

Choose Your Battles

Does it really matter if your child’s socks match? Probably not. If they are in danger, it matters. Intervene quickly to keep your child out of danger. Pick your battles here. Do not give in on safety issues: this is a non-negotiable issue. Be consistent with rules (no jumping on the couch). Do not allow something one day and then not the next. This is confusing for toddlers.

Know Your Child’s Limits

Most parent-toddler issues come from parents not understanding that toddlers have limits. Once they reach those limits, they melt down. A toddler cannot be expected to do a full day out without a break and a nap. Plan those times into the schedule (or hire a sitter). For example, a full day at an amusement park may not be appropriate for a young toddler, but a half day in the morning, a break for an afternoon nap/snack and a later stroll may work better.

Plan Ahead

Plan ahead by having a change of clothes (or two) just in case of food spillage, potty issues, or accidental vomiting. Bring snacks and a drink. Bring an empty sippy cup for water. A small first aid supply pouch is necessary: Band-Aids, wet wipes, Neosporin, children’s Tylenol, children’s Benadryl, and Kleenex. Appropriate supplies can avoid meltdowns.

Provide Positive Attention

Catch your toddler being good. Shower her with praise. “What a wonderful job you are doing today! I am so proud of you.” Allow your child to shine. Praise specific behaviors, “ I like that you shared your toy.” Positive feedback encourages them. “You said please so nicely.” Thank them for being good. Ignore unwanted behavior such as whining or nagging. If you do not reinforce the unwanted behavior, it will eventually go away. If you use a time-out, it should be for no longer than their age in years (a 3-year-old should be in time out for a maximum of three minutes.) After a time-out, praise the child for calming down.

Use Distraction

If your child starts to meltdown in a restaurant, gently take him outside. Sometimes just a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air will calm your child. Use a calm, quiet voice to help calm him. Keep your cool as he may feed off of your emotions. Point out cars, trees, flowers, or planes. Distract his attention. When you go back in, give him a cracker or crayons/paper. A toy can be a welcome distraction.

Know that you can prevent most meltdowns with simple preparation and understanding.

For more information, visit

Melanie J. Wilhelm, DNP, CPNP

Dr. Melanie J. Wilhelm, DNP, CPNP, is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, and a Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner as well as core faculty member at Walden University. Her book, Raising Today’s Baby: Second Edition, is available on


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