See more of the story

The red zone. That's what parenting expert Mary Sheedy Kurcinka calls the toddler meltdown. Parents sometimes may refer to it as the danger zone. Whatever the name, we all know the physical characteristics: screaming, crying, kicking.

Is a meltdown on the horizon? Parents can help avoid this scenario by paying close attention to the toddler, said Kurcinka, an Eagan-based licensed educator of children and families and author of "Raising Your Spirited Child."

"One of the things I always tell parents is 'Don't wait for the big cues,'" she said. "Watch closely for the small ones. Children become a little more irritable, lose focus, start looking for their 'lovies' like a pacifier or need more contact with you."

Temperament is everything when it comes to trying to predict what might set off a toddler or preschooler. For some children, it can happen when there is a surprise during the day, such as if Dad picks up the child at day care instead of Mom.

"It's important for parents to be predictable in their routines and responses," Kurcinka said. Because toddlers don't understand the difference between weekdays and weekends, she encourages parents to be consistent on a daily basis with activities such as getting dressed, mealtime and naptime.

Have a plan

Erica Mellum, a preschool teacher at Minniapple International Montessori in Minneapolis, is the parent of 2 1/2-year-old Gus, a little boy who thrives on predictability -- especially important now that the family will be welcoming a new baby next month.

"Gus is a guy who definitely likes to know the plan for the day," Mellum said. "We draw picture schedules that he can keep with him. We go over them at the beginning of each day. We've been doing a lot of running around lately, so knowing the schedule helps to motivate him to go from one thing to another."

Another key to creating calm energy for toddlers and parents is by establishing what Kurcinka calls "a yes environment," where items kids aren't supposed to have are put away, and where they can access things they want or need, via low hooks or easy-to-open drawers, on their own.

Anyone with a toddler knows how much they want to "do it myself," even if they may not yet have the words to communicate their desires. Parents can help toddlers calm themselves down when their intensity is building by "letting your child know you are listening and want to help them," Kurcinka said.

Time for activity

Especially during this time of year, when cabin fever can set in, another essential element of a "yes environment" is a place (outside or inside) where children can exercise to burn off their natural energy.

"We've been working on overhauling our basement, so now we have a place for Gus' little trampoline and soccer net," Mellum said, adding that the promise of activities for her preschoolers can also help defuse times when there is too much energy building in her classroom.

Above all, make sure your child gets enough sleep. "Without adequate sleep, they will be in constant meltdown," she said. Toddlers need 13 to 14 hours; preschoolers 12 to 12 1/2 hours. Naps -- at a predictable time each day -- are also critical.

Sleep isn't just essential for kids; parents need to protect their own sleep and need just more than eight hours each night (more for nursing mothers).

"When you are overtired, you will have no patience and no creativity," said Kurcinka, adding that parents can reap emotional and physical benefits from exercise and time spent outdoors just as much as their small children can.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.


Tips from Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, www.

• Stop rushing. If you are always in a hurry, you are overprogrammed. Children do not respond well to being rushed, which can lead to a meltdown.

• Ban morning television for your toddlers or preschoolers. Be judicious with video use; best to use only in late afternoon or when a parent is making dinner. If you overuse video time, you'll pay for it later.

• Put together a basket for your child to use when you're on the phone or caring for a baby -- include stickers, favorite books or other items the child can use independently when a parent is preoccupied.

• There are many simple outdoor activities a family can do together. Make sure everyone has the proper warm clothing.

• You will need to adjust your child's sleep schedule when daylight savings time is near. Time adjustments can result in behavior changes in small children lasting for several weeks due to sleep disruptions.