6 Things To Do When You Have A Grumpy Toddler

(Adapted from “Christ Centered Mama” by Katherine Newsom)

How do you respond to a grumpy toddler, especially when you are grumpy yourself?  We’ve all had those kind of days. The days when we feel at our wit’s end – the house is a mess, the dishes are piling up, the laundry basket it overflowing, and your toddler has come down with a cold.

It’s the normal, mundane moments of motherhood that happen everyday, in thousands of homes across the country, and today, it hits your home. You are grumpy, your child is grumpy, your house is probably grumpy too, with its inability to stay clean for just two minutes, please.  It is here that we are left with a choice: what will we do?

In order to diffuse the situation and get to the root of discontent and behavior, to see your child as one created in God’s image, rather than an inconvenience, we must first pause.

1 – Take a deep breath, pause, and a quick mental inventory.

This is pretty self-explanatory… Take a breath. Pause in the moment. Collect your thoughts. Then move forward, rather than reacting out of impulsive anger…which is the exact thing that your toddler is doing. Remember, you are the adult – it’s time to act like one. That means you, mama.  This is a precursor to a hallmark of great, Christ-centered parenting. Take inventory and be the adult that you are.

2 – Decide to see your child as Christ sees her and get to the root of her misbehavior. 

What triggered it? Have you ever heard the phrase, all behavior is communication? Well, it’s true, for adults and children alike. It’s how God wired us. There is a reason (a trigger – the root) for everything we feel and do. Yet toddlers don’t have the mental capabilities to fully understand it.

They are impulsive. They are still very immature emotionally and cognitively. Remember, you are talking about a 2- or 3- or 4- year old, not an adult, like you. That’s decades of life experience that you have, which your child doesn’t. Your child is supposed to act like a child, not like you always want or expect.

Famous psychologist Jean Piaget calls this the pre-operational stage of thinking – the stage before mental operations function smoothly. Toddlers can think logically yet are still learning how to apply that logic, if at all. Toddlers need help in order to do better, even if they know better. Over and over and over again.

So, come alongside your toddler, and meet her where she is, as a child of God who is still learning how to be human in this world. Just as Jesus does for you.

3 – Identify your child’s trigger, the root of the issue.

Some common triggers include sibling attention, hunger, thirst, tiredness, being told to stop doing something fun, or being yelled at or reprimanded. Knowing the trigger is for you to benefit from, in order to help her solve her problem.  It can also help you to prevent misbehavior and to be as proactive about your child’s emotional well-being in the future. For instance, always have healthy snacks and a water sippy cup available and be sure your toddler gets naps and adequate sleep each night.

Meet her basic needs, and when those are met, it will be easier to figure out what the real issue at hand is…as it will also help her feel better, and in turn, affect how she plays and acts. Knowing your child’s trigger is so important!

4 – Decide how you are going to view your child in this moment – a child of God who needs help to learn how to be human, how to identify her own triggers, and how to communicate that to adults that can help her.

It’s also important to understand when what you are currently doing isn’t helping at all – in fact, it may be making things worse, as yelling at an already stressed and crying child can escalate her anxiety and now will take her twice as long to calm down to where you are able to deal with the true problem at hand.

Sometimes, you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember that you are talking to one of God’s children. God sees you and the reasons why we all do what we do – sin – it’s time to bring this perspective and grace to our relationships with our children. We mirror Christ – Jesus’ relationship with us – in our parenting and relationship with our children. With this, we can meet our child where she is: We have already identified the trigger, we just met that need, and now we can share phrases that can help her to communicate that in the future.

I always try to think of Daniel Tiger songs in these moments.  Here are a few examples:

  • If you’re feeling frustrated, take a step back, and ask for help;
  • When you feel jealous, talk about it, and we’ll figure something out;
  • When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath, and count to four;
  • Saying I’m sorry is the first step, then, how can I help?

(I looked up the Daniel Tiger videos and they seem very good.)

5 – Focus on the root of the issue at hand, not necessarily the whining.

By this I mean: Let your child know that you are here for her in a calm voice and give her space to calm down. It is only when your child is calm, rather than in fight, flight or freeze mode, that you will be able to reach her and have some type of conversation with her about what happened.

This is where a basic understanding in brain and child development comes in handy. I repeat: your child is just that – a child – and does not know or see everything as you do. You are the adult, and you are modeling to your child how to handle conflict. What do you want your child to learn from you?

Here’s a quick rundown of fight, flight, or freeze mode:

fight – kicking, screaming, pushing, and throwing fits

flight – Restlessness, fidgeting, darting eyes are examples of flight;

freeze – Holding her breath, whining, daydreaming, or shutting down.

Once you understand more of your child’s development and how the brain works, you will have more compassion for your child. Also, did you see that whining is known as a freeze response, to situations where your child is triggered, and in turn, misbehaves? Yes, it’s true.

With this, we can focus on the root issue at hand, seeing our child as a child of God, and meet her needs – rather than focusing on her reaction to the situation, which in fact has been extensively studied in the fields of psychology and brain science as developmentally normal for a toddler. We can now give her tools to grow in the future, which brings me to the next point.

6 – Teach her skills for her emotional growth: by coaching, talking, explaining, and naming what is going on.

The next step to reach your grumpy toddler in this is to recognize these signs yourself and help your child to identify them. Talk about the things you notice your child doing and how it relates to these responses. Teach them calm down skills they can use next time. Teach your child to understand her triggers and how her brain works.

Talk with your child about the songs in #4, sing them together, and give her tools for emotional growth, understanding and success.  He created us with the capacity to feel the expanse of emotions – sadness, anger, joy, fear, disgust. God knows that we (the adult and child alike) can feel and act in these emotions – it is no surprise to Him!  We shouldn’t be surprised when our toddler is human, too.

Talk with her about what happened, give her phrases and names for what she is experiencing, and give her tools (such as the songs from Daniel Tiger) to benefit her in future interactions.  This goes for you too, mama. If something isn’t working, try something new; Approach your grumpy toddler as a child created in God’s image, a child who is still learning how to be human, and meet her where she is, while giving her tools to set her up for success. This approach is definitely a learning curve, and takes time, yet I promise you, you will not regret it.