The Supermarket Meltdown
Imagine this: you’re in your local supermarket when you hear the murmurs of a kerfuffle behind you. You turn around to see a mum gently prise a packet of biscuits from her toddler’s hands. She replaces them as he insists he wants them. She calmly says “I know, but you’ve just had your breakfast and look I’ve got these for later,” showing him his favourite snacks. The toddler pushes them away and continues to moan. Mum notices you and smiles apologetically before moving off. The toddler’s complaints go on and mum’s tone becomes more strained. Minutes later, the toddler is screaming. You catch sight of him on the floor in the grip of a meltdown. Mum hurriedly tries to load the shopping onto the till, under the watchful gaze of onlookers. She looks angry and flustered, her few items indicate that the shopping has had to be aborted. She scoops up her red-faced toddler and as he continues to cry, her face glazes over as she wishes the checkout would swallow her whole…
Sound familiar? I’m sure we’ve all experienced some variation of the ‘supermarket meltdown’ at one time or another. Whilst people expect toddlers to throw tantrums when they reach the ‘terrible twos’, the experience of being a mum trying to cope when it’s your own child can be overwhelming. Mums go through a whole range of emotions when their toddler is in meltdown; from holding firm with gritted teeth, to feeling perplexed and angered by it. Some feel anxious and helpless and like they have no choice but to give in to the demands of their little dictator. And whilst giving in temporarily restores peace, mums are left with feelings of embarrassment, guilt and anger, they question why their child behaves like this, why they react in the way they do and how they are going to manage.
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Understanding what the toddler is going through developmentally can help mums cope better with tantrums. As a dependant baby grows, he comes more into contact with the world around him. It’s a fascinating and mesmerising place with so much to understand and explore. The ability to move away from mum by crawling and walking fosters a growing awareness of his own autonomy and independence. The young toddler is now able to come and go, no longer a passive spectator as he has some control over his situation. Establishing this sense of control is incredibly important to a toddler.
Learning to control his body gives him a sense of agency and achievement, whilst having control over his mind contributes to his sense of identity. It’s not surprising that one of baby’s first words is ‘no!’ as he begins to want to do things for himself and decide what he likes and wants. Perhaps toddlers become so oppositional as they try to determine what makes them different from other people. They are interested in contrasts and opposites; to them the world is very black and white, if it’s not ‘yes’ then it has to be ‘no’. Their difficulty finding the middle ground is reflected in their constantly changing minds; they struggle to find satisfaction in either decision.
Becoming independent is no easy task. Toddlers swing from feeling ‘I am king of the castle’ to feeling terribly small and helpless in a matter of seconds. When faced with their own limitations, their bubbles burst so easily. At these times, they need to go back to Mum or Dad for comfort. Whilst the toddler’s natural developmental drive is to exercise their independence, they need to do so with the security of knowing that their parents can accommodate both their baby and more grown-up selves.
Whilst toddlers seem like they know everything and are in control, what they are actually doing is practising being in control of themselves and others. It’s easy to assume that toddlers are more emotionally mature than they are and able to deal with their feelings themselves. Just as infants needs their parents to regulate everything for them – feeding, eating, sleeping and emotions, toddlers also need help regulating their emotions. Thinking rationally is especially hard as the toddler experiences feelings in a raw and powerful way. Tantruming toddlers need parents to help them make sense of their overwhelming feelings of anger and despair. They have to learn the hard way how to wait for what they want or not receive it at all, and tolerate the difficult feelings this brings. They learn this through a shared experience with a mummy or daddy who is able to understand their feelings.
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How to Cope
1. Think about what your toddler is experiencing and talk to them about it.
You can help your toddler by acknowledging their feelings of anger and disappointment without giving in to their demands. Being told no is difficult for anybody, but as adults we have learnt to manage our feelings around this. In addition to the toddler’s angry and upset feelings, they can also feel quite frightened of becoming overwhelmed by their emotions. Your understanding and comfort will help them learn that these feelings can be managed.
It’s difficult to talk rationally and quietly to a screaming toddler. At this stage it’s better to take them off to a quiet place and soothe them until they calm down, then talk to them about how they feel and why you said ‘no.’ Talking to your toddler about how hard or unfair it is when mummy says ‘no’ may defuse a tantrum from starting in the first place (as can being quick enough with an interesting distraction tactic!)
3. Try not to give in to their demands
This is easier said than done as giving in can quickly de-escalate a meltdown, but children need to learn that ‘no’ means ‘no’ and that there are limitations and consequences. Instead of learning the painful lesson that you can’t always have what you want, toddlers will learn ‘if I push it as far as I can then mum or dad will give in’. This gives rise to a sense of power that is immediately rewarding but ultimately scary for one so little. You do have to pick your battles, but try to be consistent to give your child a reassuring sense of where the boundaries are.
4. Know your limits
You also need to be aware of when your toddler’s meltdown is filling you up with overwhelming feelings. As well as your natural reaction to the situation, toddlers still rely on a primitive mode of communication. Without language to express how they feel they can fill you up with their difficult feelings, letting you know how angry, anxious or overwhelmed they feel by making you feel the same. It’s important to keep track of your feelings and know when you are reaching your limits. You communicating this to your toddler, as calmly as possible, will help him learn that people have limits too. When feeling your most stressed try to help yourself by going to a different room (if it’s safe to leave your child) or taking a minute to breathe and think about the situation. Does it matter that much? Is there another way you could deal with it? Toddlers can push you to your limits so it’s important to take time for yourself to let your own emotions out and centre yourself again. Remember your toddler does not have your capacity for rational thought and regulated feelings so he/she needs to learn this from you.
The terrible twos is a normal phase in child development, one in which the toddler learns about his and other people’s capacities and begins the process of emotional self-regulation. However it can be extremely challenging for parents so if you’re concerned about managing your toddler’s tantrums get support from friends and family or seek professional help. Remember, this is just a small hurdle in a lifelong journey where you and your bub get to know and understand each other and build an unbreakable bond!
Liz Fletcher is a UK qualified Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist. Liz completed her four-year clinical training at the Tavistock Clinic and in an NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service clinic before returning to Hong Kong where she was born. Liz specialises in providing individual psychoanalytic psychotherapy to children of all ages through to young adulthood. She also provides parent-infant psychotherapy, parent support work and family work for under 5’s. Liz works in private practice in Hong Kong — for more information please visit www.lizfletchercps.com.