Coping With a Toddler Tantrum When You Can’t be 100% Present

Coping With a Toddler Tantrum in a Stressful Situation ~ Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

I am a relief teacher. Sometimes I get called into work early in the morning and have to rush to be ready in time but luckily, more often I am given advanced warning. Today I had received the call the night before and so was able to ensure I was up early with lunches made and bags packed, ready to have everyone out of the house by 7:30am. But even with warning, getting out of the house in the morning is quite stressful and everything needs to run smoothly in order for me to make it to school before the bell rings for class.

This morning, I finished getting myself dressed and ready just in time for both my children to poke their little heads out of their rooms. Seeing my husband and I both up they excitedly ran to the kitchen to get their breakfast. Unfortunately, their excitement soon ended when my husband announced that he was heading to work and would see them that afternoon.

Three year old, Lucy, ran outside to the letter box and climbed on top, assuming her normal position for waving farewell to anyone departing our house. Penny, on the other hand, proceeded to cling to her father and wailed “Daaaaaddyyyy!” over and over as I prized her from his leg. As he drove away, she collapsed in a heap on the cold driveway and with her arm reaching out in the direction of his departing truck, she cried and cried as he disappeared out of sight.

My heart sunk as the implications of this for my early morning get-away were becoming clear. Penny was not dressed, had not had breakfast and had not even had her overnight nappy changed. I went to her and acknowledged “I hear you are very sad, Daddy has gone and you really wanted to go with him”. She waved her hand at me and shouted “No!” She did not want me near her. She did not want to hear my words of comfort. She just wanted her Daddy back. At any other time, I would have adopted a position nearby and let her know I would be there for her when she needed me but I couldn’t offer her that this morning. At least, not out there, on the driveway. I had to leave the house at 7:30 and there was still a lot to do in the next 40 minutes before that time.

My first thought was that I needed to get her into the house and out of the cold. Her bare feet on the cold concrete combined with her thin pyjamas meant it was not safe for her to stay in the freezing conditions as she was. I let her know that she needed to come inside and offered her the choice to walk herself or be carried. She did not respond nor did she stop her crying. I acknowledged that it seemed too difficult for her to make that decision at the moment and then let her know I would carry her in. Of course, this made her cry louder and fight stronger as I carried her through the door just managing to shut it in time for her to run and land with two hands splayed against it as though she were locked inside a prison cell. She continued to cry a desperate, angry, heart-broken cry through the frosted glass to the outside world.

Each time I tried to reach out to her, she would swipe at me and push me away. I stayed calm, empathetic. She was hurting and although my need to get ready was genuine, her need for understanding was greater. I considered using a ‘carrot’ to lure her out or her despair. I knew a sweet or ice block would do wonders for lifting her mood but I fought my instincts, knowing that this bandaid solution was not the most considerate, nor effective method. This would benefit me more than her. I decided instead to give her the time and space she needed and to trust her to work through her feelings whilst I continued getting her older sister and myself ready.

So I left her at the door. I made Lucy breakfast in the kitchen nearby and made an extra piece of toast for Penny for when she was ready. I went to her often to let her know I could hear her and understood how hard it was for her. I explained that I needed to keep getting ready but would be there for her whenever she needed. She responded aggressively each time, clearly letting me know she was not ready to talk.

I finished dressing Lucy and found some clothes for Penny which I packed in her bag to take to her day care mum. Lucy was ready and playing nearby, she too tried talking to Penny, offering her a piece of her pretend cake from her tea party (funny she should have the same thought about using food as a distraction!) – it didn’t work.

With ten minutes until we needed to be in the car and reversing out the driveway, I started getting a little apprehensive about how I was going to do this. I was careful not to let this anxiety show. I remained calm and confident. I spoke to Lucy and let her know we would be leaving in five minutes. I then told the girls that I was going to my room to gather my coat and shoes. Penny was still crying.

Whilst in my room, Penny’s cries for her Daddy changed to cries for Mummy. I finished what I was doing and walked out. She had moved from the door and was standing, still sobbing, near the couch. I crouched down by her and asked if she would like a cuddle. She turned to me shyly, unsure, but I knew this was her way of letting me in. I wrapped my arms around her and held her close as her sobs eased and she let me wipe her tears (and other fluids) away. I waited for her to break the cuddle. She was still in her pyjamas, her breakfast remained untouched and her wet nappy was still on but she was finally finding her own peace.

I let her know we were ready to go and asked if she would like to take her toast in the car. She grunted yes. I asked her if she would like me to pick her up, she turned and put her arms around my neck as I picked her up. I grabbed her toast which I had cut into bite sized pieces and placed in a bowl. I picked up her day care bag, which was filled with her day’s clothes, shoes and nappies. I carried her out to the car and strapped her in. Her mood was lifting. She started pointing out objects of interest as if her meltdown had never happened. Her sister climbed in next to her and I finished gathering up my bag and a couple of other forgotten items.

We backed out of the driveway at 7:32am. Penny had reached a state of equilibrium and Lucy had maintained her own level of calm throughout the whole morning. I know without a doubt that had I forced Penny to get over her strong feelings prematurely with threats or distraction she would have experienced waves of these emotions all day long. As I left her with her day care mum who happily dressed her and changed her nappy, I could go to work confident that she trusted me, had felt me understand her and that our relationship was stronger than ever.

Side note: In the afternoon, when I collected Penny, her day care Mum had this to say: “What magical elixir did you give Penny? She had such a good day. She was cheery, cooperative and played confidently all day.”

My response:  “No elixir, just love, understanding and connection.”

For more reading on supporting children through their emotions head to:

When Extreme Emotions Take Over a Toddler Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)

The Healing Power of a Toddler’s Tantrum Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare)

The Storm Within – Dealing With a Toddler’s Emotional Self Melissa Cady (The Emerging Mamma)

Temper Tantrums Lisa Sunbury (Regarding Baby)

Coping With a Toddler Tantrum in a Stressful Situation ~ Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids





26 thoughts on “Coping With a Toddler Tantrum When You Can’t be 100% Present

    1. Dan

      Hi Adele,
      I too used to think like you. However, through a plethora of scientific evidence (and empirical evidence) it is actually more respectful and effective to offer your children two choices. They are whole people and deserve to make their choices, not coerced. Love and patience is how to develop sustainable and authentic relationships with our children.

  1. rainasmuse

    Loved this story. Thank you for sharing. I’m always looking for inspiration on how to soothe my 2.5 year old daughter whenever she has a meltdown. I try and stay Present with her and unconditional with her as much as I can. Some days I have more patience than others. I loved hearing how you parented both Penny and Lucy through your morning rush and a meltdown. Your response to your daughter was a welcome place for her feelings and I am inspired in my own parenting.

  2. Sydney Steiner

    This is the perfect post for me to read today. With the new baby I often feel now that I don’t quite har that time to sit and listen but I don’t want to stifle my toddlers feelings. A great reminder that I can still be present while not right next to my child having a massive breakdown.
    Also, I love this: “I know without a doubt that had I forced Penny to get over her strong feelings prematurely with threats or distraction she would have experienced waves of these emotions all day long.”
    I made the mistake of handling a bedtime tantrum in a rushed way and my son was up for an hour and a half in the middle of the night which never happens.

    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      Thank you, Sydney. It really is so therapeutic for children to be allowed to run the full course of their meltdowns, isn’t it. The sense of serenity and calmness which inevitably follows is awe inspiring. All the best with your new baby! 🙂 xx

  3. Claire H

    wow you’re good at this!
    I’m trying by best not to rush in the morning, and i’m lucky that i can get to work at flexible hours (although it’s a huge price to pay as i stay long hours to compensate). Mornings are for cuddles now, as much as i can, to start to day as smooth as possible. However, when we need to leave early, it’s hard for me to handle things right (understatement…)
    I think that the sentence i need to focus on it “I started getting a little apprehensive about how I was going to do this. I was careful not to let this anxiety show. I remained calm and confident.”: do you have some practical tips for that to happen?
    I feel that i’m constantly after her and i realize that i want her to do as i ask… do you think that i should just tell her once we would be leaving in xx minutes, and go back to what i have to do?
    thank you so much

    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      Remaining calm and confident in stressful situation is a mind set for me. When I know it is going to be stressful I make that conscious decision before things get too crazy that I will remain calm. It is much more difficult when something stressful happens that I have not foreseen as I then have to manage my emotions on the spot. So when you know you have to leave early, get yourself into the right mindset before you start with the children. I am sure you will find it easier to stay unruffled when you do this.

      I have been working hard on managing my emotions for nearly two years now. Working on this blog as a way of reflecting really helps me to stay conscious of my actions as much as I can.

      Good luck and remember if you do let your emotions come out, try to take some time to talk to your child about it after the heat has died down and then look forward to the next opportunity you are given to practice and improve. You are doing such a great job already, Claire, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Xx

      1. Claire H

        Thanks Kate, i’ll try that. We are really doing our best… as my husband say, it’s crucial that we work on ourself to be better people so that we don’t mess her up… i’m feeling the pressure. I began to write a blog too, and you’re right, it helps.
        we’re lucky that children forgive and move forward quick
        lots of love and thanks again ♥

  4. Michelle

    Wow what a great and inspirational read. I struggle with MY emotions in a stressful situation such as the one you describe and whilst reading this was so awed at your ability to stay calm, I want to be a peaceful and loving parent too and NOT the sergeant-major type I often find myself reverting to these days 🙁

    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      Thank you, Michelle!
      It takes a lot of conscious thought for most people (including myself) to remain calm in stressful situations. As I mentioned to Claire in the comment above, I have been working on this for nearly two years and I am still not always able to stay calm. When I do, I always take time to reconnect with my child and apologise for not staying calm when they need me. This helps me to stay more conscious about it in the future. The outcome when I stay calm is ALWAYS far better than if I let my emotions take over so I am always surprised that my first instinct is to lose it!
      Keep working on it and applaud yourself when you achieve small goals. It will become easier! Xx

  5. katepickle

    This is just such a lovely post… full for respect for everyone’s needs, including your own need to get out the door on time!

    I often feel like I have to pick one or the other… my needs or my child’s, thank you for reminding me that I can work towards a win win situation for all, with respect and love.

  6. Chelsea

    This is such an inspirational post. You painted the picture so vividly and I really appreciate the detail you went into so we could get a better understanding of the situation. I will definitely remember this.

  7. Daniel Wagner

    I’m learning to deal with these issues as well. My typical response in the past would have been to reprimand them and tell them to quite their whining. Kind of a ‘man up’ approach, which I understand to be all wrong now. It doesn’t consider the fact that my kids are experiencing things way differently than I am, and just because I’m annoyed with the crying and the fits, it doesn’t mean that I need to intervene and get them to stop at all costs.

    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      Yes, Daniel! That would have been my response in the past also. Accepting our children’s emotions is so vital for making our children feel safe and secure with us to express them. I feel that is so important. Thank you for commenting 🙂

  8. LG

    How would you have handled this though if she had to be dressed and changed before leaving the house? I ask b/c that is more akin to what might happen in my house–we have to leave, toddler has to be dressed and therefore must be taken against his will in the middle of meltdown. it’s not pretty!

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  11. Melissa

    Thank you so much! I deal with this almost on a daily basis. I have a very strong willed little 2 year old. On some mornings she wakes up so grumpy and does not want to get dressed or get going. There are times that I find myself yelling knowing that this only makes it worse. On those days I know she has a bad days at daycare and I have a horrible morning at work. I feel like the worst mommy in the world.

    1. Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids

      Don’t beat yourself up, Melissa! It is so hard with strong willed toddlers! They sure can put up a fight when they want to!
      See if you can find ways to make things a little easier for yourself in the mornings. I have a friend who found it so hard to get her son dressed for daycare in the morning, she would put him in clothes for bedtime that were acceptable for day care so there was no need for a complete wardrobe change when he woke. Whatever works, I say, to make the mornings less stressful and to make transitions smoother.
      Good luck!


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