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Mama Drama: Toddler Tantrums and Clean Up Meltdowns

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Dear Mama Drama:

My three-year-old daughter is driving me crazy! I love her to death and she’s got so much spunk, but when I need her to get things done and she refuses or throws a tantrum and I am at a loss. She could care less about consequences and seems to enjoy all the attention she gets from lectures. I seem to be the only one frustrated in this situation.

~Going crazy

Dear Going Crazy:

Three can be a challenging age as children seek more independence and challenge expectations. They often run on their own time schedule and our demands can appear random and unreasonable to them.

Creating a daily visual schedule can help your daughter to understand the routine of the day. If something needs to change for that day, you can change the picture or sequence of the schedule and discuss that with her ahead of time. Three-year-olds also respond better when we explain, in developmentally appropriate language, why the change is occurring.

Provide transition warnings for your daughter when you are asking her to stop a preferred activity. Depending on her needs you may want to use several warnings at five minutes, two minutes, and one minute. When she does not want to do a task, using first-then statements and/or visuals can also help. “First bathroom, then snack.” Showing her a picture of what she needs to do and what is next in your routine can also motivate her to make that transition. Having the preferred activity in the “then” spot is most effective.

We often get stuck focusing on the negative behaviors our children exhibit. Work on developing a positive behavior system where you catch her making good choices and give her lots of attention for that. She can earn stars or stickers toward a goal and then earn a fun activity with Mom or Dad. Make these activities ones that she doesn’t do every day such as taking a bubble bath, dancing to silly music, having a picnic in the kitchen, etc. Set her up for success by making sure the goals you set are attainable.

As you notice the things your daughter is doing well, you will feel less frustrated and more able to handle the difficult times. Try responding with humor and silliness (although be careful not to use sarcasm) as a way to diffuse the situation and break out of negative patterns.

Dear Mama Drama:

Every time it is time to clean up my two-year-old son has a meltdown. He cries and fusses and says he can’t do it. During playtime he pulls out every toy in the house, so there are toys everywhere. I’m not great at organizing, but have baskets around the house for his toys. I feel like he has done this enough that he should be able to do it independently.

~ Expecting too much?

Dear Expecting:

Cleaning up can be an overwhelming task when there are lots of toys and materials out. Adults know how to organize and where to get started. Young children do not have this experience, so we need to teach them how.

Begin to decrease the chaos with a rule about getting out one activity at a time. When the cars, trucks, Legos, books, shoes, dolls, puzzles, and train tracks are all out most children are overwhelmed and have no idea where to begin. Having fewer items to deal with makes clean up more manageable. You do no have to be rigid with this if he wants to integrate various types of toys in his play. You will need to teach him this system, though, monitoring, supporting, and reminding him, “Let’s put the Legos away, then you can get out the puzzles.”

Children need time to shift gears when they are engaged in play. They often do not understand why they need to stop what they are doing. As clean up time approaches, start with a five minutes warning, “Five minutes and then it will be time to clean up.” You could also say, “If there is anything else you want to do, now is the time.” Then provide two minute and one minute warnings as well. At the allotted time, obtain eye contact and tell him, “Time is up. First we need to clean up and then we are going to ______.” Letting children know what is next can be a helpful motivator. It is even better when the “then” can be made into something they like to do.

Stay with your son working together to clean up. You can sing a clean up song or put on a cd and race the music.  Help him develop skills to clean up systematically so that he can be more successful and feel less overwhelmed.  “Are you going to pick up the puzzles first or the books?” I’m going to pick up the red blocks first, are you choosing blue or yellow?”

Provide bins for different types of toys to go in. Separate bins for cars, people, blocks, Legos, and puzzles help him to organize. Additionally, it is easier for him to find toys when he wants them without dumping everything else.

Remember your son will need a lot of practice to learn this skill and to be able to do it independently. Stay nearby and join in to help and support him in being successful.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

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