We’ve all seen the toddler meltdown. It’s that end-of-the-world sobbing tantrum over something so small you may not have even known what it was. A lot of the time, they don’t even know what it was.

Toddlerhood is a unique time in childhood in which the child wants so desperately to be in control, to be “big,” and yet he is still so little. The desire for independence comes out through power struggles that make no sense, and parents are simply riding this rollercoaster of toddler emotions.

Today the meltdown was over the fact that I tried to help him scoop his food with his spoon. The horror. We went from casually enjoying our meal to absolute freak-out in less than two seconds. Instant red face, tears, shaking – the whole scene.

There was no recovering from this…. dinner was over. I’m sitting at the table looking at this sweet little boy of mine thinking, it’s hard to be little. If he could articulate his feelings in that moment, I imagine it would be this:

Mommy, I want you to know that I can do lots of things for myself. I want to be independent, but I’m starting to understand that the world is a very big place and this makes me feel helpless. I get into power struggles with you because I just want to control something, even if that something is just my spoon.

I firmly believe that the “terrible twos” are terrible because two-year-olds are acquiring knowledge so quickly, they don’t know how to sort it out.

Here are some Montessori-based strategies to help children to feel competent, to foster a sense of independence so that hopefully these meltdowns become few and far between:

Give children a job

Children need to feel competent, and they love being helpers. Give them as many opportunities to do practical things for themselves as you can. Let them help you with everyday tasks. Having a sense of independence and purpose is energizing for children. For example, a perfect job for a young toddler is to put their dirty clothes in the hamper.

The child can only develop fully by means of experience in his environment.  We call such experience ‘work’. ~ Maria Montessori

Provide Child-Sized Equipment

Fostering children’s independence means making tasks and activities accessible to them and spending the extra time for children to do the tasks that adults could quickly do for them. Of course, it will take three times as long to let your child try to clean up their mess after dinner with a small broom and dustpan, but these experiences are important – it allows them to problem-solve on their own.

Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity which is derived from a sense of independence. ~ Maria Montessori

Give choices

Providing young children with limited choices helps them to feel more in control of the situation. If you want your child to put on their socks, you might ask, “Do you want to put on your red socks or blue socks?” Putting on the socks is not a choice, but the child has control over which ones they want. By giving choices, we gradually pass the decision-making on to the child, until they are capable of doing so on their own.

“The child’s development follows a path of successive stages of independence, and our knowledge of this must guide us in our behavior towards him. We have to help the child to act, will and think for himself.” ~ Maria Montessori

Say yes as often as you can

When children have control over small aspects of their day, and you are able to say yes to the little requests – rainboots in 80-degree weather? Sure, why not? – it makes it easier when adults have to say no. Letting children make meaningful choices tells them that you value their opinion and input.

The essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self. Adults work to finish a task, but the child works in order to grow and is working to create the adult, the person that is to be. Such experience is not just play… it is work he must do in order to grow up. ~ Maria Montessori