3 Tough Toddler Moments and How to Deal with Them

The transition from a baby to a toddler–and one with very strong opinions!–can come on quickly. One day, your 2-year-old might happily come with you, put on their coat, and get buckled into the carseat to run errands. The next day, they’re lying on the floor crying because they don’t want to leave their toys. Sound familiar?

Toddler tantrums and other strong-willed behaviors often begin in the 18-month to 2-year-old range. Toddlers are coming into their own, realizing they have thoughts and opinions, and learning how to communicate them. It can be challenging (and frustrating) to know how to respond during these meltdowns.

Let’s look at three typical scenarios that can lead to toddler meltdowns. We’ll discuss some ways you might be able to prevent these tough toddler behaviors, and how to communicate when they do happen.

1 When your toddler doesn’t want to get dressed

Is it itchy fabric or just a power struggle? Sometimes it seems impossible to get clothes on your little one. There could be a few reasons your child isn’t interested in wearing what you’ve picked out for them today. First, check for scratchy tags or rashes that might erupt from certain materials–no one enjoys that!

However, for some toddlers, the act of getting dressed is an opportunity to assert themselves and find out the limits of their control. Grownups make decisions for them all day long, and sometimes the pushback is exploratory. 

So what can you do? The number one thing to do here is to offer your toddler a choice of clothing. They get to seize a little slice of control, but the “parent-win” is that the two or three options they can choose from were pre-vetted by you. So if you’re OK with them wearing polka dots with stripes, offer them both! If you’d prefer that they not wear sandals on a 30-degree day, leave those in the cupboard and offer boots and sneakers instead. 

As another bonus, giving your child choices is good for their language growth. When you present items your child can pick from, as well as model some language for them to imitate, this helps them learn what to say when they want to make a choice. 

For example, you could ask, “Do you want your blue hat, or your red hat?” If they make a choice by pointing to the blue one, you can model, “I want blue,” or “blue hat.” Giving your child language models, or demonstrations, helps increase their independence in communicating–which may help prevent some meltdowns, as well! 

2 When your toddler doesn’t want to go to bed

Kids crave routines. It helps them know what to expect, because sometimes the unexpected can be upsetting! When it comes to the bedtime wind-down, we might be talking about interrupted activities or unfulfilled expectations.

Your toddler doesn’t yet have the firmest grasp on time, so while you’re eyeing the clock for their bedtime, they’re happily playing and exploring with toys. Without a heads-up that bedtime is coming, it could send them into a meltdown. Have you ever been interrupted while doing a task or a fun activity? Imagine that someone walked into a movie theater with 45 minutes left and dragged you out to get in your pajamas. You’d feel perplexed, too. 

A helpful hint is to build in visual and verbal reminders for your little one of their impending bedtime. Discuss the schedule often and every day: “When you’re done with dinner, we can play for a little bit and then get ready for bed.” You want them to be aware that bedtime will be coming soon.

As the time gets closer, you can also add reminders about how much time is left. “In 10 minutes, we’ll go and get our PJs on!” “I can help you clean up for bed in 5 minutes.” “One more minute and then we’ll head upstairs for bedtime!” With frequent reminders, bedtime won’t seem to come out of nowhere for your toddler.

If you want, you can use a visual timer to help your little one physically see the amount of time they have left to play. 

If it’s a day when your routine is different and you’re out and about before bedtime, try to still use verbal reminders. “When we get home, we’ll head to the bath and then read a story before bed. What story do you want to read?” 

3 When your toddler wants more screen time

With all the screens in our lives, it’s inevitable that your toddler will likely watch some TV or play on a tablet. But it can be challenging to get them away from a screen without causing a major upset. 

To best avoid tears, try using a timer as mentioned above. When the timer beeps, your child will know that screen time is over. Kids often respond more calmly when an object is telling them that time’s up, instead of their parent. You may need to remind your child that it’s time to stop, but overall, the transition should go more smoothly with a timer.

When possible, you can also try providing something for your child to look forward to after screen time. So maybe the timer beeps for screen time to be over, but then it’s snack time. Try saying something like, “It’s time to turn off the TV, but now let’s pick out a snack!” or “The TV is turning off, but now we get to go outside to play!” 

Of course, it won’t always be possible to do this. So help your child through their feelings as they come up. Try validating their feelings while still maintaining the expectations you’ve stated–perhaps something like, “I know you’re sad to put up the tablet. It’s OK to feel sad.” Staying calm and steady during the midst of a toddler tantrum can help your child learn how to regulate their own emotions and big feelings. 

It’s not always easy to help young kids grow their independence. You are definitely not the only parent looking for tips on handling these scenarios. If only raising little people was simpler! When caring for a toddler feels especially tough, try to focus on the special role you play in your child’s life. A bedtime meltdown might not feel like a learning opportunity, but your child looks to you for so many things. Through your actions and responses, you’re showing them how to navigate big feelings–and communicating that you’ll always be there for them. 

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