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When Your Toddler Won't Stop Crying!

A parent's guide for making it through a meltdown

Imagine your child comes to you and asks for a banana. Without giving much thought you grab one from the fruit bowl, peel it and offer it to your child. With that, your little one melts into a puddle on the floor, devastated. 

With clenched fists and tears rolling she says, “But I didn’t want a peeled banana!” Within seconds your child transforms from a happy tot into an inconsolable toddler. And then, there you are, standing above her with a perplexed look on your face wondering how a peeled banana could cause such pain and upset. Who knew, right?!?

This is a classic "toddler won't stop crying" scenario!

Why is my toddler crying so much?

It's easy to forget that our children are children, not mini-adults. Although the peeled banana doesn't warrant a total meltdown in our adult logical mind, it does trigger a storm in their still-developing brain. So, if your 1-year-old or 2-year-old won’t stop crying over it, there’s no need to panic just yet! 

To resolve the tantrum, think of a traffic light: Red. Yellow. Green.

The Red signifies the brainstem, an ever-watchful guardian. It's perpetually scanning for perceived threats – is there one now? Or now? This vigilance prompts the flight or freeze response when it senses danger or is overwhelmed. This heightened state ignites emotional meltdowns and tantrums as the brainstem takes charge.

Have you noticed your child hitting, kicking, running off, or shutting down? This is Mother Nature's way of letting our children release stress. Tantrums signal that their active brainstem is on high alert, temporarily sidelining the more advanced parts of their brain.

But why does a peeled banana matter? With their budding emotional awareness, toddlers can't yet navigate big feelings effectively. Hence, we witness them crumble into a heap over seemingly small things, like a peeled banana.

Our role is to communicate safety in the throes of a "Red brain" moment. When they feel secure, their emotions can find balance and order.

Transitioning to the Yellow zone – the midbrain or limbic region. This is where emotions call the shots. It collaborates closely with the brainstem in managing feelings. When toddlers enter this zone, whining becomes their tool for releasing the stress of imbalance. It's a sort of evolved cry, a plea for help regulating their feelings. This is when they yearn to be heard and validated.

Enter the Green zone – the prefrontal cortex, the center for advanced learning. It's where life skills blossom: insight, impulse control, reasoning, problem-solving, and empathy. We often wish to fast-forward to this area to impart wisdom, but it's not that simple. Research reveals that it doesn't fully mature until the mid to late twenties.

So, those skills we eagerly want our children to grasp? They need time and nurturing, just like any other learned skill. Unlike the instinctual reactions driven by the brainstem, these skills require patience and growth.

Remember, our kids aren't yet equipped to reason like adults. And that's absolutely fine – it's all part of their journey.

Daniel Siegel, a prominent psychiatrist and the head of the Mindsight Institute, introduces an effective tool in his book "The Whole-Brain Child." When both parents and children grasp the workings of the brain, the origins of intense emotions, and the triggers behind certain behaviors, it becomes easier to uncover the root causes, connect, and teach skills for handling those significant emotions.

What can I do when my 1-year toddler won’t stop crying without reason?

Let's circle back to the banana scenario. You're probably itching to blurt out, "Stop crying!" or "Don't cry!" It's like every cell in your body is on the verge of screaming, "FINE, HERE'S YOUR PEEL-FREE BANANA. SERIOUSLY, CAN YOU PLEASE JUST STOP CRYING ALREADY??!?! IT'S NOT A HUGE DEAL!"

But hold on before those vocal cells get the best of you. I'd like to suggest hitting the pause button. This is your chance to extend a sense of safety (nodding to the red brain) and to truly hear and validate your child's overwhelming emotions (giving a nod to the yellow brain). It's also an opening for co-regulation, a joint effort to tackle the peeled banana drama and cultivate those green brain skills. So where do we kick off? With a breath. Take a moment and take a deep breath.

Now, get down to their level, crouch or sit down, to establish that safety net. "You seem really upset. I guess you didn't want the banana peeled, huh?" By simply stating the situation as it is, you're giving a thumbs-up to their feelings without attaching any judgment – because let's admit it, observation is free from judgments. As you offer them the banana (peeled or unpeeled), you might throw in something like, "Looks like you're feeling sad or let down. It's absolutely okay to let those tears out. I'm right here…"

These words aren't just words; they're a gateway for our little ones to grasp their emotions. This is crucial because it allows them to decipher their inner world and express their emotional journey. While you utter these phrases, really mean them. Be present in that moment with your tiny human who's just starting to unravel the mysteries of "feelings" – and yes, that includes everything from annoyance to dismay, and yep, even full-on fury.

Being present in this way conveys to your child that you're a secure harbor for their feelings, that you're all ears when it comes to emotions, and that all feelings are valuable and respected.

In the whirlwind of parenthood, it's crucial to remember that amidst the toddler crying non-stop, there are opportunities like this – moments where you can create an emotional sanctuary and start guiding them through the intricacies of their emotional world.

Mother comforting her crying toddler

How can I create loving limits when my child is crying? 

After validating your child, you can hold a loving limit.

Loving limits are clear, firm and respectful. They hold sacred your child’s big emotions while setting boundaries for redirection. 

In the instance above, you could say something like, “This is your banana today. If you want to peel your banana tomorrow you can. This is your banana today. It’s right here if you’d like it.”

Rather than being angry and reactive, these words are responsive, like training wheels, helping your child learn to be with their emotions, express them, and shift in the presence of your calm, clear, and respectful boundaries.

What is my emotional climate inside when my child is crying? 

As you sit with your child in the middle of their upset, look to yourself

What is happening in your body? Are you holding your breath? Are your shoulders tense and way up by your ears instead of relaxed and sitting on your rib cage? Does your face look all scrunched up, irritated and/or scary? 

Take a deep breath. Soften the lines on your face and keep breathing (this is the first thing that goes when we’re upset). 

Imagine a moment with your child where you were at peace and FULL of love. Snuggling. Staring into their big, dark eyes when they were a newborn. Breathe, holding this memory in your mind as you allow for this less than peaceful child that is before you to be seen as well.

What does the emotional shift look like?

As you sit there together, accepting your child and all their many feelings, she will likely still cry. But the shift has already started. A slow climb from her brainstem to her prefrontal cortex.  

As she works through her emotions, she may reach over and grab the peeled banana, eating it and happily going on her way.

But she may not. She may choose to never reach over and eat the peeled banana. And that is okay too! 

No matter the banana’s fate, your child will feel HEARD. And even though she was dealing with some downright big/scary/ugly feelings, the two of you will leave the experience feeling closer to one another instead of mad/angry/frustrated and further apart. 

How can I turn a meltdown into a learning opportunity?

Every moment and experience is an opportunity to stretch ourselves and grow. Even in the case of the banana. 

By connecting with your child, validating their emotions and helping them name and tame them, you are sending two important messages:

1) You can be trusted with your child’s big emotions

2) You can be loving even as you are setting limits. 

The outcome of the banana is far less important than these big truths. When we can lean into our child’s big emotions, growth happens. The red and yellow brains feel safe and heard. And those big life skills of the green brain begin to increase as your child’s brain makes new neural connections. Every time the same pattern is repeated- Safety, Validation, Regulation- the deeper that connection runs and the more likely it is to become a new, learned skill. 

Let your child know in ways great and small that you are a safe place for them to feel their emotions no matter what. Because you two? You are on the SAME SIDE OF THE COURT. You are connected. You are a team.

(And a damn good one at that.) 

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