What Causes Meltdowns in Toddlers?

by Kathryn Walsh, Demand Media
    Even free candy can't prevent a meltdown.

    Even free candy can't prevent a meltdown.

    Parents of toddlers have a silent bond. Every time you pass another parent standing over a screaming, flailing tot, you'll make eye contact and share a smile that says "Been there." Meltdowns are as natural to toddlers as handshakes are to adults, and preventing them altogether is -- sorry! -- impossible, but knowing what triggers your tot's tantrums can stop some before they begin.


    To your toddler, that shiny new toy is the only thing missing in her life. If she could just get her hands on it, it would be the greatest day of her life ... then you pick her up and cart her out of the toy store, empty-handed. She's bitterly disappointed and more than a little frustrated that you didn't understand her needs. Any number of frustrations, big and small, will cause similar reactions in your toddler. Her short legs might not cooperate with her desire to run as fast as an older sibling, or she might want you to play a certain game with her but can't tell you what it is. In a similar situation, you might feel like growling or throwing something, and that's exactly what she does. Some frustrations she just has to accept, while her growing vocabulary will help her express others in a way that doesn't involve tears.

    The Need for Attention

    As far as your tot is concerned, she should be the center of your universe. She's right in some ways, but that doesn't mean you can quit your job and devote all your time to staring at her. Your toddler is so bonded to you that she wants to interact with you as much as possible, and in her mind, the kind of attention she gets doesn't much matter. If she's learned that meltdowns get you to talk to her and be near her, she might trot this trick out when you're distracted or trying to leave the house. Praising her positive behaviors and ignoring her attempts to get your negative attention -- as long as she's not risking her safety -- can curb attention-seeking tantrums.

    Physical Causes

    If you find your daily workload exhausting, imagine what it's like to be a toddler. She runs around at full steam for hours at a time on short little legs and with a small stomach that can't hold much at a time. When her stomach and her energy level hit empty, she's going to let you know. A toddler who's approaching nap and hasn't eaten in a few hours will throw a tantrum over something that wouldn't even make her an eye when she was feeling good. Giving her access to snacks and keeping her away from stressful conditions when she's tired will do wonders for her mood.

    Other Causes

    By the time your child is old enough to explain why she's having a tantrum, she'll probably have developed the coping skills that makes them unnecessary. Sometimes, she'll have everything you believe she could possibly want -- and she'll still be miserable. She could simply be a sensitive kid who is easily upset by change in her environment. If you always take her to day care in the afternoon, she could start getting upset around lunch because she realizes you'll be leaving her soon. She could even have an autism spectrum disorder, a symptom of which is frequent tantrums. Whatever you suspect the cause is, she's probably not melting down just to ruin your day, so unclench your fists and your jaw. This tantrum, too, shall pass.

    About the Author

    Kathryn Walsh started writing in 2005. Her work has appeared in "The Syracuse Post-Standard" and on various websites. She has over 15 years of experience working with children, two as a preschool teacher. Walsh received a dual Master of Arts in journalism and television and film from Syracuse University. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Rochester.

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