The dreaded time between dinner and bedtime. I always say that babies and toddlers are free falling and surviving those last couple hours of the day. They have used most of their attention, impulse control, learning, patience, etc. throughout the day and are running out of gas.
Dinner time is usually always a struggle to get them to sit and eat. After dinner, they are usually whiny, cranky, bouncing off the walls, extremely loud, jump from one thing to another and slowly crumbling until bedtime. (If your child does not do this… please tell us your secrets!) Us, as parents, are running on fumes too. We are much more irritable, patience is running thin and trying to make it to bedtime as well. This constant push and pull of emotions between us and our little ones, creates earth shattering meltdowns.
Meltdown happens and we cross our fingers and hold our breathe that it only lasts a second (or two). BUUUUUUUUUUUT… IT ESCALATES. We go into panic mode and we either try to comfort, discipline or rationalize with our kiddos. However, it DOES NOT WORK! It actually makes it so much worse and the tantrum becomes more supersized. Then we take it personally and anxiety, and even anger, arises and we resort to punishing. We threaten to take away toys, food, activities, etc. and this creates even more hysterics on both ends. In the end everyone is losing in this battle and we don’t know how to stop this viscous cycle. Believe me… I have been there and still get caught in the trap many times with my 4 year old.
We need to change the way we are approaching and observing this entire situation. We know, that towards the end of the day, we (ourselves) are tired, cranky, irritable, hungry, need a shower, etc. and just don’t feel the best. For babies and toddlers; they feel the same, but they don’t have the communication skills and self regulation to talk themselves through the uncomfortable feelings and then to find out what they can to do help themselves feel better. That’s where us, as parents, come in as their support and leader.
Instead of tensing up, anxiety taking over and starting to panic… take a breath. Think about what exactly is happening and what the root of the issue is. Are the HANGRY, thirsty, overtired, overstimulated, too much screen time, loud noises, long and active day, skipped nap, etc. Once we identify where this huge release of emotion is coming from then we can work to guide them through it. We automatically start to try and reason and rationalize with them.
Ex: Parent: Would you like the blue cup or the green cup?
Child: The green cup. (Parent gives child the green cup)
Child: Immediately throws the cup and says, “I want the blue cup!!!!”
Parent: Utter confusion and tries to rationalize, “You said you wanted the green cup, I gave you the green cup and now you are crying for the blue cup. No, you said you wanted the green cup and that is what you are getting!”
Your kiddo then starts to hysterically cry, throws their body on the ground, hits, tries to go for the blue cup, etc. Us, the parents, then get mad and tell them that if they want to have a drink then they can use the green cup or no drink at all. We then go into telling them that this is not acceptable behavior, tell them to stop crying, to stop acting bad/naughty/bratty, tell them what not to do, raise our voice, etc. Because we are starting to feel uncomfortable, angry, sad; it escalates our child’s behavior. They become more hysterical and aggressive. THEY LITERALLY CANNOT HELP THEMSELVES.
WE NEED TO HELP THEM! THEY ARE TELLING US THAT THEY ARE NOT IN CONTROL AND NEED US TO HELP! We need to show them that just because they are having difficulty expressing and handling their feelings and behavior; it is not going to shake us. We are their safe place and free zone to experience these icky situations.
What Can You do to Help?
- Take a step back and observe what is happening.
- STAY CALM!
- Look around you and is there a lot of chaos going on? TV is on, siblings running around, dog is barking, you are trying to cook dinner and your toddler is throwing an epic tantrum?
- Brainstorm the root of the issue. I know, I know easier said than done while you are in the moment. Ex: Did they skip nap today? Did they ask you for a drink 10 minutes ago and we got side tracked and then their uncomfortable thirst took over? Did they just have a spat with their sibling? Did they have a long day at school/daycare? When is the last time they have eaten? Are they not feeling well? There are so many factors that it could be and that this one specific incident sent your little one over the edge.
- Once you have, to the best of your ability, determined what the root of the problem is (they are not going to tell you what it is because they do not know themselves), you can then help to identify and work through the meltdown/tantrum.
- DO NOT expect to be able to have a conversation back and forth at this time. Reasoning is not going to sink in and is going to make them even more upset.
- Sportscast what is happening. Ex: “Ugh, sweetie, I hear that you are upset because of the cup. You did ask for a drink earlier and I got distracted making dinner. I know it can be very yucky when you are really thirsty.”
- Get down to their level, talk in a very calm and even tone and take their lead. If they need a hug, hug them. If they need space, give them space in a safe place.
- Once they have calmed down… move on with your night. Do not dwell on it. Do not punish. Do not pressure them to tell you exactly why they were having this behavior. They cannot communicate effectively on their own with these big emotions.
- Discuss with them at a later time, during a low key activity, breakfast the next morning, etc. what we can do to better express our emotions next time this happens or having such an intense feeling.
- Model the behavior you wish for them to emulate.
Remember your baby and toddler do not have strong Executive Functioning Skills. Executive Functioning Skills is the mental process that give us the ability to plan, focus, organize, multi-task, self regulation, memory, and self awareness. We cannot expect our little ones to possess these abilities when they are not fully developed yet. Transitions are hard for babies, toddlers and adults and we need to be prepared and open to the flood of different emotions that come along with it. Allow and give them permission to feel the sadness, anger, excitement, giggles, frustration, etc. We want to be their constant and security. This intense feelings comes and goes and once it goes… all is still OK in the world and we can move on.
We are in this together!
Founder of Sweet Baby Sleep Consultant