Before having children, I didn’t realize that it was possible to cut toast the “wrong” way, or “break” the banana, prematurely stir the yogurt, or use the incorrect colour of plate. But parents of toddlers know that this is a THING—actually, quite a stressful thing.

I remember the last time I mistakenly put butter on the toast when my child was expecting ONLY JAM: he threw himself on the ground, wailing.

Parents who are in the middle of this, please know that I feel your pain. I know how incredibly frustrating, taxing, and a bit crazy-making it is to assume your child was done his oatmeal, put it in your mouth to avoid wasting it, only to have your child clawing at your face to get the food back out.

Here are my suggestions for getting everyone through moments like this. Please know that these types of situations are common, and part of normal, healthy child development. You aren’t doing anything wrong.

Keep your cool.

Your child has a young brain that is primarily driven by pure instinct, and is not trying to hurt you. Remind yourself that your child has little experience in life, doesn’t realize the ridiculousness of his outrage, and feels like his world is crashing in. Your primary goal is to stay calm—to stay in your reactionary part of the mind, not the fight-or-flight part that your child is in.

Stay away from invalidating statements.

Although the reason for our toddler’s utter meltdown seems irrational to us, it is not irrational to them. In a split-second, your child likely feels disrespected and not heard, without the skills to communicate this. His outrage triggers his “back-brain,” which sends messages around the body to attack, defend, freak out, and demand.

If your child had the words, he’d likely say something like this: “I always have the yellow plate. I must not be that important to you if you keep forgetting that,” or “I don’t understand that a banana in half is the same as a whole banana. I think it might taste different,” and, “I said squares! You weren’t listening to me! UGH!”

Although we might be thinking things like, Are you kidding me?! Not again! or I don’t have time for this, catch those words before they come out. Be quiet. Nod.

Acknowledge the upset.

Your child might not be able to hear you if he’s really yelling. Try kneeling down to his level, putting a hand on his knee or shoulder, and nodding in a “yes” motion. Quietly say something like this, “You wanted your toast cut in squares. It is in triangles. You are mad about that.”

Notice that I didn’t say, “I cut the toast the wrong way.” Keep “I” out of it.

Keeping nodding and staying close. Scoop in for a hug if he will receive it.

Set your limit.

I know it might be easier to throw the first piece of toast away and make a new one. I’m asking you not to do this. The reason is: we don’t want to inadvertently teach our children that melting down and demanding are successful tactics for getting their needs met. Our children will reduce or grow out of this behaviour in the future if we continually teach them more effective ways of telling us they are upset.

I suggest saying something like this: “I know you want your toast in squares. It is already in triangles and that is a change we can’t undo.”

I would then try an either/ or: “The triangles are here for you to eat. Would you like to eat those now or after we read a book/ play a puzzle/ have a snuggle-down on the sofa?”

Or perhaps something like this: “The toast is going to stay in triangles. I’ll leave them here so you can eat them when you are ready.”

Or maybe this: “What would you like to add to the toast to make it taste yummier for you? Some strawberries?”

All of these statements above are worded so to reduce power struggles and give your child an element of choice, while at the same time, still holding firm on not making a new piece of toast.

If your child throws the toast or heaves it himself into the garbage, I suggest not replacing it and taking a break: “It is not okay to waste food. Even when we are mad, we can’t throw food out. I’m not making more.” Start a new activity and wait until your child says, “I’m hungry” again. Let him pick between two types of food, “It’s fruit time! Do you want your banana in a tower or circles?”

Be their regulators.

Have you heard of self-regulation? I invite you to read through this if you’d like to know more. In a nutshell, small children don’t really have the power to stop their huge emotional meltdowns on their own: they need us to help them do this until they are older and have practiced how to do this many, many times.

Imagine yourself as an external hard-drive that needs to plug in from time to time to download files when the computer gets too full. Use touch, hugs, and love to support your child until he has cried out his upset. Tell your child that getting upset is normal: you are there to help. You will make sure he, objects, and other people are safe.

Do this if your child just isn’t calming down:

If your little one is absolutely taken over by his fight-or-flight reaction, try to facilitate the shift to the rational part of the mind by quietly doing something they love nearby. Block towers are my favourite toddler-mind-shifting activity!

Quietly pull out a bin of blocks near where your child is. Start building a tower: marvel at your masterpiece and then “mistakenly” knock it down! Shout, “OH NO!” Pick up the pieces and try again, “Silly tower. Hmm… maybe this will work.” You might also do what I call a connection bridge, which is where you demonstrate to your child that emotions happen, you are there to help, and then they actually stop. Your child won’t always feel the way he does now. “I hear that you want some space. I’ll be here playing. Come on over whenever your mad has come all the way out.”

I bet it won’t take too long for your curious toddler to join you.

Apologize if you made a mistake.

If there’s something that you need to apologize for or own, go ahead and do that: “I’m sorry. I know you said you wanted your toast in squares and I didn’t do that. I needed to listen to you better. I’ll remember to pay better attention tomorrow.”

Carry on bravely!

As I mentioned, moments like this are common in toddler life. Please do take good care of yourself so you have time to recover from banana-breaking moments. Get lots of rest and know that your persistence to use attuned, responsive parenting and helpful language will have a HUGE positive affect on your child. Hang in there—you can do this.


I actually created an app to remember phrases like the ones I mention above. It’s called Taming Tantrums and can be found in your smartphone iTunes or Google Play app store. Here are the links to find it in iTunes in the US, Canada, and Google play.


Do you have any questions? Please do ask those here or on my parenting Facebook page.

-Banner image from Honest Toddler