How to Avoid Meltdowns Without Caving In!

Susan Stiffelman

My 3-year-old’s tantrums wear me out. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I end up giving her what she wants because I can’t face another one of her meltdowns Is there a way to give in that won’t make her think that all she needs to do to get what she wants is make a big fuss?


One of the developmental tasks of childhood is learning to regulate the emotions that can feel overwhelming. When your daughter experiences frustration or fear, she struggles to manage the impact of big feelings on her immature psyche. Like many children, she simply falls apart, effectively “announcing” that she needs help finding her way back to center.

In an ideal world, you would calmly settle your daughter down with words that soothe and comfort her. “I know you wanted another cookie…you want to have all the cookies, and you want them right now!” This approach, which I refer to as Act I parenting, helps the child feel heard and understood, and is often enough to help them find their tears so they can adapt to life without cookies.

But I also understand that even the most saintly parent reaches a breaking point sometimes. There are going to be days when you simply don’t have the patience or energy to sail through the storm of your child’s meltdown until she collapses from exhaustion and finally makes peace with not getting what she wants.

When you see signs of your child heading toward a tantrum and you realize you aren’t going to be able to stay cool, calm and collected, there is a way to “give in” to your child (thereby avoiding the meltdown) without teaching her that whenever she wants something, all she needs to do is make a lot of noise.

If you believe your daughter has been caught in the grip of a desire for something and you know you’re probably going to end up caving in, make it your idea to give her what she’s asking for. “I was about to offer you another cookie! I can’t believe it! You must have read my mind!”

There is a caveat to this approach — and it is an important one. You can only offer something your child desperately wants if she is still asking nicely. If she’s already in the midst of a tantrum and you give her what she has demanded, you will be teaching her that the best way to get what she wants is to have a tantrum.

But if she is asking sweetly and you sense that your “no,” is likely to precipitate a major meltdown, feel free to co-opt her desire and make it your idea. “How did you know that I was planning to read you another story? That is amazing!”

Raising a resilient child who becomes capable of navigating life’s disappointments requires that we often say “no” to something she wants. There really is no other way for a youngster to discover that she can live through things not going her way other than to help her experience living through things not going her way. But for those times when you’re running on fumes and can’t face a major meltdown, transforming her request into something you had already planned to give her can spare you the drama.

Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, an Educational Therapist, Parent Educator and Professional Speaker. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Developmental Psychology, a California K-9 Teaching Credential, a Masters of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology, and a California Marriage and Family Therapist license since 1991. Visit her website and be sure to sign up for her free Parenting Without Power Struggles newsletter!