Staying Cool During A Toddler Meltdown

What are some suggestions you could offer on ways to stay calm, cool, confident when your toddler is having a meltdown over a limit? It can be really hard to know if you are doing it ‘right.’

Kelly's Thoughts...

Isn’t it though?! We all struggle with finding that balance. When I was younger, I was blessed with meeting and studying with a truly exquisite nursery school teacher who effortlessly set limits for groups of preschoolers. It always seemed work like a charm. It was as if she was a fairytale princess or something…floating through the play-yard, singing and dancing through the social pit falls of being three. I remarked one day a bit flummoxed, “You are so good at that- how do you do it?” Her reply, “ The only difference between me and a younger teacher is trust. I trust them and I trust myself.”

Trust is an often overlooked and yet vital component to limit-setting. We need to trust children and ourselves. Children need to be able to trust themselves, and more importantly, trust us. But while it is true that people speak at great lengths about the importance of being confident in limit setting, it is also important to realize that confidence can be faked. Trust cannot. Children can tell when we are faking it and it affects their ability to trust us and their ability to adhere to our limit.

We must trust that we can set a limit and handle whatever comes to pass. We trust that we can handle the upset and the possible refusal to follow the limit. Trusting ourselves isn’t easy. Something else my lovely mentor had that many of us don’t is decades of practice. So how do we come to trust ourselves without decades of experience under our belt? A short cut to years of practice can come through a checklist that even those of us with experience use.

When setting limits, we ask ourselves:

  • Are we allowing the child to have strong feelings and a difference of opinion? Just because we said it, doesn’t mean they need to like it. For example, we adults can understand the consequences of pulling the flowers off the plant. Children often don’t. Offering our empathy goes a long way in making a child feel heard and not simply put upon. “I want the flowers to stay on the plant. You want to pull.” We need to trust that a child who is upset by a limit is not being traumatized by it. They may well be overwhelmed or flooded even by strong feelings due to the limit, yet these strong feelings needn’t be sentimentalized. Our job is to help him integrate those emotions- trusting that he can do so. Providing them with a voice not only builds their trust in us, it also helps them develop a social emotional skill called perspective taking which is important in later peer relationships.

  • Are we trusting that with time they can accommodate our request? In our attempt to move the day along or get from point A to point B, we can go too fast for children. I am often amazed at children’s ability to come along with me if I give them enough time. When I have the time, I wait as long as I can to let the child successfully follow the limit: get into the car seat on their own, get into the tub, brush their teeth etc. Trusting that the waiting is worth it can be hard, but I promise you it always pays to slow down. When you don’t have the time, then you can’t wait. Though if you’ve waited when possible, a child much more readily “helps” than if never afforded the chance to follow the limit at their own pace.

  • Is this limit reasonable, age appropriate, and necessary? We aren’t likely to feel bad about stopping someone from running into the street or hitting a sibling. These are pretty universal. But not all limits come with such a tacit understanding. Different families have different limits for other things such as: how to use furniture in the home, use of art supplies, or playing with parent’s bags or purses. Things to consider with these limits is whether the limit seems age appropriate or not and whether there is a suitable alternative. Dumping water out of tub onto the floor doesn’t work, but dumping into buckets or outside may.

  • Are we asking for permission to set the limit? There are times when in our attempts to be respectful we can inadvertently defer to the child. “We need to go inside now to get ready for bed, okay?” Do you want to get in your car seat, sweetie?” But in our attempt to be kind, we are sometimes confusing. Clearly stating your expectation is kinder. When we aren’t trusting ourselves or their actions, we can ask for their permission rather than simply waiting for their buy in. If we need to change a diaper, we can be respectful of their individuality while still being clear that it needs to be done. The choice isn’t if the diaper is coming off. The autonomy they get is in helping to do that. “We need to change your diaper- do you want to walk or be carried?” “Would you like to stand or lie down?” And then allowing enough time for them to make a choice.

  • Are we clear that we are responsible to set the limit? Until a child has the ability to integrate the limit and the impulse control to stop themselves, we need to physically make sure the limit happens. We know that they have internalized the limit when they stop themselves. This takes a lot of time and practice. If the food needs to stay at the table, we need to make sure that it stays at the table. We can’t expect a toddler to do that on their own simply from a verbal instruction. We need to support their learning of that limit through our consistency setting that limit.

  • Have we set up the environment to help us succeed? To continue with the example above, food stays at the table. We need to set the environment up to help us with this limit. Some families gate the dining area. Some families set the table or dining tray along a wall or corner of a room with the parent sitting next to or directly across from the toddler. When a child gets up, we can gently block their way with an outstretched arm, reminding them: “Food needs to stay at the table. I want you to stay seated until you are finished chewing.” or “You can hand the apple to me or place it on the table.” and then we wait for them to choose which way to follow our instructions.

  • Are we allowing enough time for the child to follow through? Toddlers move at a different pace than us- anyone who’s been around a 20 month old knows that. But when it comes to their ability to follow instructions, they need time. Lots of it. Once we give our instruction, we need to wait. And often wait some more so they can listen, understand, and then follow through.

  • When possible, are we inviting them to help problem solve? This can’t always happen, certainly. When it can, collaboration supports the trust we have in them and the trust they have in us. With younger toddlers, modeling the collaboration lays out the framework for them to use as their verbal skills grow. “Chalk is just for the side walk. You want to write on the house… what can we do? … Here is water and paintbrushes for the house. The chalk needs to stay on the concrete.” As a child grows, they can help fill in the blanks for you.

There’s no set of rules or guidelines that safe guards us from never loosing the right balance or ensures that we always feel great about how we set a limit, but having perimeters helps us feel safe in our choices. Early Childhood Educator and author Janet Gonzalez Mena offers perhaps the most famous metaphor on the setting limits. Imagine yourself crossing a bridge without guardrails at night. Now imagine it does. Just knowing where the boundary is makes us feel safe. Trusting ourselves isn’t always easy but the guardrails can make us feel a bit safer.

About our Associate:

Kelly Scott has worked with families with small children for over 15 years. She began her career working with young children with autism while attending the University of Minnesota. After moving to Los Angeles, Kelly discovered the work of Magda Gerber and the Educaring® Approach. She incorporated this into her continued work as a nanny, newborn infant care provider, and nursery school teacher. She co wrote the Nurturing Nanny course and became a RIE® Associate in 2008.

Recently, Kelly founded The Nursery School at Crestview Farm in Encinitas, CA. A nursery school experience she envisioned for her own daughter. She wanted her own daughter to learn, play and grow amongst living things Kelly passionately believes play is a fundamental right of childhood and works to provide families and young children opportunities to do so. She writes about her passions at

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