How do I handle toddler meltdowns?

Smart love - March 2006


The Piepers

Q: I understand and agree with your approach to toddlers—to babyproof the environment so they can explore without interference. But whenever my 14-month-old daughter gets tired or cranky and I pick her up, she pulls my ears, yanks my hair, hits me in the face and even bites. Most of the time she is very loving, but the moment she is melting down and I have to pick her up is when she starts after me. I try holding her hands, but she gets hysterical. I don’t want to punish her, but I don’t know what to do.

G.B., Evanston

A: You are right that this behavior needs to be managed but not punished. We call this approach "loving regulation."

Your daughter is behaving in an age-appropriate manner: When she feels tired or cranky she assumes you are the cause. Young children believe their parents are all-powerful and cause their emotions, both good and bad. Since the motivation for her aggression is the immature (but normal) assumption that you are responsible, your daughter will outgrow this. Until then, you must gently but firmly manage her reactions so she doesn’t hurt you.

There are several strategies you can try. If all else fails, instead of picking her up facing you, lift her facing away from you and hold her gently under the arms until she calms down. You are showing her that you are there to help her feel better, but she won’t be able to reach you. You can also carry baggies of finger food she likes, her favorite songs on a tape recorder or her favorite stuffed animal to distract her. Most important, keep in mind that this is a temporary phase.

Should I pass my infant around to all my visitors?

Q: Three weeks ago, I gave birth to a son, the first grandchild on either side of the family. Understandably, everyone wants to come and see and hold the baby. I am beside myself with happiness at having this gorgeous baby and selfishly hate to hand him over. Also, I wonder whether it’s good for so many people to hold him. I don’t want to be a party pooper. At the same time, I feel a little overwhelmed and uncertain what is best for my son.

W.N., Chicago

A: First, we suggest that you control the number of visitors each day. You and your husband need time to enjoy your son and to help him feel comfortable and happy. You can establish one or two regular times when people can come over, then limit the number of visitors. If a friend or relative calls on a busy day, you can say, "We would love to see you, but today isn’t good—how about tomorrow at 7 p.m.?"

Second, people often assume that babies are too immature to distinguish between people and that they can be handed from person to person without a problem. Research shows, however, that newborns recognize their parents’ voices and mother’s smell and are comforted by them.

Babies also recognize strange stimuli. As a result, they can have difficulty relaxing and sleeping if they are passed from person to person. Conversely, they tend to remain relaxed and adapt well to new experiences when they are held by familiar people. So instead of passing your son around, take him with you and sit next to your visitors so they can hold his tiny hand and look into his face while he is in your arms. That way your visitors will have an up-close experience with your son while he remains in the security of your arms, smell and voice.

What do I do with my son’s inappropriate birthday gifts?

Q: My 8-year-old son just had a birthday party. We took 14 boys bowling and had a great time. The problem is the presents he got, which include DVDs and a video game we would never let him see or play. My son wants to see them because they were gifts, and his friends will ask if he liked them. I hate to spoil his good feelings, but I can’t see letting him do things that we would not allow just because his friends gave them to him.

O.S., Chicago

A: No parent likes to take away a child’s presents, yet you don’t want to abandon your principles. We suggest you offer to put away the movies and video game until your son is old enough to watch and play with them. Then, let your son choose acceptable replacements. Your son will have more presents in the end, and you will feel comfortable with what he is watching and playing.



Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors That Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline That Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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