“It is hard to spend all day with a 2-year-old, and they don’t really want to spend all day with you anyway.”  Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of Happiest Baby on the Block a/k/a Lane’s Early Parenting Bible.

I love the recent wave of articles and comedy stemming from toddler tantrums.  I’ve had a toddler, and he had his tantrums, and while some of them made me laugh (freaking out because I cut his cereal bar into bite-sized bits), some of them made me want to tear out my hair (freaking out because I cut his cereal bar into bite-sized bits–yes, I know it’s the same tantrum.  What is funny the first time is crazy-making the 35th time.)

Like any parent, I wanted to be absolved of a) responsibility for the child’s behavior when it did not mirror my desires, b) guilt for wanting to turn the child upside down, dip the top part of his head into the toilet bowl, and flush, and c) the need to discipline my little cave man.  However, if done, then my child grows up to be some wretched, entitled moron who cuts you off in traffic and gives you the finger for daring to be on the road–can’t have that.  Also can’t have CPS coming to take my child away because of the swirlies.

What was most important to me was to remember that I was dealing with a toddler who barely spoke English, who couldn’t reach anything he wanted to have, who lived in a world full of No, and who wasn’t even allowed to do what he wanted with his own bodily functions.  I tried to remember how frustrating life was for him, and how often I would like to throw myself on the ground and scream bloody murder.  My job was to get him from the point A of doing exactly what felt right, to the point B of controlling himself and channeling his emotions into something that wouldn’t get him arrested later down the road.

While I had days of miserable failure, B and I were both always very aware and careful not to subject the general population to Thor’s worst moments.  Toddlers are going to tantrum, just like haters gonna hate, but meltdowns can be avoided or curtailed, or at least removed from earshot.  So, here are my top bits of advice for anyone with a howler of his or her very own:

  1. Always have some kind of healthy, toddler approved snack available (it helps to trick them into liking healthy things early on by not giving them any other choices.  If they believe apples are the only snack in the world, they will covet the Golden Delicious.  Babies are insanely easy to fool, given they have no idea what all is out there.  I would strongly advise against just springing celery on a kid who has cut his teeth on pop rocks and pixie stix, though.  You think he’s mad now…)  It’s hard to howl with your mouth full.  I know food isn’t a solution, and we don’t want to make our kids associate eating with anything other than hunger, but hunger is frequently part of the problem.  Growing kiddos have different hunger cycles than we do, and having something on hand to fill the belly can help.  That’s also why I advocate for healthy.  You don’t want to hand Junior a Snicker bar every half hour, but a small piece of cheese, or fruit, or a carrot stick–not going to hurt him.
  2. Snacks don’t always work, though, so I kept a rotation of toys in Thor’s diaper bag, and later in my purse.  He loved cars, so I always had at least 3 of them.  When I thought about it, I would grab a $0.97 car and keep it in its packaging.  Then, if he was showing signs of meltdown (for him, it was eye rubbing, snuffling, and scowling–and God forbid I mistook those for sleepy signs!) I would whip out the new toy and he would forget he was upset.  Babies have very limited short term memory.  Kind of like me.  Shiny!  Ooh!
  3. Thor liked pictures of himself and mirrors (also like me.  Dang.)  So I carried a small, soft photo album with pictures of him in action, of him with his daycare teachers, and of him with us.  If I could distract him with the photo album, we could head off a meltdown.  If he was mid-meltdown, I would pull out a mirror and he would be fascinated by the sight of himself.  The wail would trail off into sniffles–until he tried to eat the mirror, then it started all over again.
  4. I also carried finger puppets.  I’m sure that needs no explanation.
  5. Sometimes, nothing is going to work, and you are just going to have to leave the restaurant, your grocery cart, the line at Ross, or the theater and take your kid out of gen pop.  Maybe this is my best meltdown advice.  Here’s why:  Other people will appreciate that you aren’t letting your little air raid siren pierce their eardrums is a biggie, but also, remembering that Suzy doesn’t process stimulation the same way we do will help us understand that being in the middle of a restaurant for her is like standing in the middle of a superhighway for us.  It is loud, unfamiliar, intimidating, and can be frightening.  Once that meltdown has taken hold, getting her to a quiet place can help her focus enough to calm down.  Thor used to freak out when we would go to Chili’s.  It’s one of his favorites now, but we could absolutely guarantee he was going to cry at the table there.  That place was just overwhelming for him.
  6. There will also be times when all-else-fails, and when you are so frazzled and raw that you are having a hard time focusing.  Right at that moment, it’s going to be hard to remember to be a good parent.  Put the child down somewhere safe, and walk away.  If you have a parenting partner, give the child to them and get out of earshot.  If you are a single parent without help, pick a safe place (like you would for a tornado–drill if you must!) to put down Johnny and step away.  It would be better for him to sit in the bathroom and eat toilet paper than for you to do something you’d regret for the rest of your life*. 
  7. Read Happiest Baby on the Block, and Happiest Toddler on the Block, or watch the DVDs.  I swear on these.  They will help you understand where your baby is coming from, and why your toddler is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and give you tools to combat the desire to just let Darwinism take its course.

Above all, stay calm and don’t escalate (oh how easy to say and hard to do!)  Don’t negotiate with the little terrorist if the meltdown is in full swing, just get him into a quiet place, love him, and let him know that while it is safe to express himself with you (because it needs to be if you want him to talk to you when he’s 17), he needs to find ways to do it without biting (because that hurts.)  Help him channel the feelings he is having.  Love him, love him, love him, and understand he’s just doing his job. 

I used to tell Thor that out loud.  “I know you are just doing your job being a baby, but let’s work to get you promoted, okay?”  He had no idea what I was talking about, but it helped me keep perspective, helped me keep my sense of humor, and sometimes confused him enough to stop crying for three seconds–long enough for me to distract him with something shiny.

Good luck.  Lots and lots of good luck to you.  If you make it through the toddler years, you’ll have a lot of great stories to tell your kid’s prom date and future grandchildren.

*Bonus:  We’ve all been there.  There is no shame in feeling like you want to do something awful.  You should be ashamed if you have done something awful, and you should seek help so that it never happens again.  If nothing else, or if you can’t afford anything else, go to one of those Safe Place places and tell them you need help–they’ll know how to get you to the necessary resources. 

Bonus Bonus:  If you know a parent who needs help to avoid doing the awful, go help them.  Imagine it’s you and act accordingly.