How to distract a 2-year-old (to avoid an emotional meltdown)

It’s one of the secrets of positive parenting: Prevent or improve bad moods by steering kids away from triggering situations and conflicts. But how do you actually do it? How do you distract a 2-year-old who is in danger of melting down?

The immediate goal is to get your child engaged in a pleasant activity. But it isn’t always easy to get kids to cooperate. And you also want to work towards an additional, long-range goal. You want to help your child build stronger self-regulation skills, so your child will be better at handling life’s little emotional challenges…even when you aren’t around to do the steering.

frustrated toddler girl covers face with her hands

Happily for us, developmental psychologists have been working on this problem, and we can learn a lot from their discoveries. Let’s take a look at a recent experiment on 2-year-olds, and see how we can apply its lessons to our everyday lives.

How toddlers respond to the frustration of waiting

Picture this.

You and your child visit a strange, new place — a psychology lab — and you are quickly ushered into a small room with some toys to play with. A researcher says she is going to leave you and your child here for a few minutes. She instructs you to play with your child until she comes back.

After a brief interval, the researcher returns. She brings two additional toys into the room, and for a couple of minutes, she and your child play together.

So far, so good, right? Your child might feel a bit unsettled by the new environment and stranger. But the stranger is friendly, and, overall, your child is having a pretty enjoyable time.

Here comes the hard part.

The researcher stops playing, and shows your child an especially interesting-looking item – an enticingly-wrapped gift, or a tasty treat. Your child wants this item. Of course. But your child isn’t allowed to have it. Not now. The researcher places it on a high, out-of-reach shelf, and then she points to a light in the room – a light glowing red. She explains to your child:

“I’m going to leave again, and while I’m gone, this light will stay red. But when I come back, the light will turn green, and I will give you the prize.”

The researcher instructs you, the parent, to remain as passive as possible. Avoid interacting with your child. And then the researcher exits, locking the door behind her.

You and your child are alone in the room. The toys are still there. But your child knows about the exciting prize on that high shelf.

Chances are, this isn’t a scenario you want to experience. In fact, it was designed by Johanna Schoppmann and her colleagues as a way to deliberately annoy little kids. Their goal was to find out how toddlers would respond to this frustrating situation, and, as you might guess, the answer was “not well.”

When Schoppmann’s team tested this scenario on 96 two-year-olds, the kids weren’t happy. They’d been having a pretty nice time earlier, when they were playing with those toys. But now that there was a forbidden prize beckoning to them? The kids were left to wait for just 3 minutes, and at the end they received the promised reward. But during the wait their emotions had deteriorated pretty dramatically. There was crying, whining, screaming, and other forms of acting out.

So Schoppmann and her colleagues now had a baseline of how each child reacted to the frustration of waiting. This would provide them with a benchmark they could use to measure any future improvements. And that’s where the next phase of the experiment was headed. Was there a tactic researchers could use to help kids improve their ability to self-regulate negative emotions?

From previous research, Schoppmann’s team knew that young children are capable of distracting themselves from frustration and anger by engaging in play. Indeed, some kids had handled the waiting scenario better than others…precisely because they had focused on playing with toys. So the researchers wondered if they could teach this life skill, and they had a hunch about how to do it. Show and tell!

An experimental test of the power of role models

Schoppmann and her colleagues randomly assigned children to different experimental conditions.

Some of the kids were assigned to a control group. These children played a game with the researcher — a game that didn’t teach kids about coping with negative emotions.

And the rest of the kids? They experienced something different — a kind of tutorial in self-regulation. It unfolded like this:

The researcher unveiled an unusual new toy, and confided to the child that she, the researcher, really wanted this toy. But she couldn’t have it now. She must wait until the light turns green.

Next, the researcher began to play with a different toy to distract herself. Three times, over the next three minutes, the researcher commented out loud about her feelings. She would repeat that she didn’t like having to wait, but playing helped. “I feel fine while I’m playing.”

At the end of the three minute waiting period, the researcher turned the light green, and took possession of the coveted toy. She played with it briefly, and then hammered home the key message one last time. “I disliked waiting, but felt fine while I was playing.”

What would toddlers take away from this little drama? They had watched an adult admit to feeling displeasure about a wait. But they’d also seen her demonstrate a coping strategy — keeping herself busy with play. And they’d heard her explain the strategy four times. Would they learn from her example?

To find out, Schoppmann and her colleagues administered a second waiting test. Once again, the children were shown a desirable gift or treat. Once again, it was placed out of reach, and the toddlers were told they would have to wait to receive it.

What happened next?

It depended on whether or not a child had previously seen the adult demonstrating and talking about the distraction strategy. The kids who had observed this lesson spent more time distracting themselves with play. And the more time kids spent distracting themselves, the less frequently they displayed negative emotions during the wait.

So it worked. Two-year-olds learned from example. And this is news that every parent and early childhood caregiver can use. When toddlers are facing a frustrating wait, we can help them cope by demonstrating (and explaining) the distract-yourself-with-play strategy.

More reading

Are you looking for more information about young children’s behavior and self-regulation skills? See these Parenting Science articles:

“Positive parenting tips: Getting betters results with humor, empathy, and diplomacy”

“Emotion coaching: Helping kids cope with negative feelings”

“Teaching self-control: Evidence-based tips”

References: How to distract a 2-year-old

Schoppmann J, Schneider S, Seehagen S. 2019. Wait and See: Observational Learning of Distraction as an Emotion Regulation Strategy in 22-Month-Old Toddlers. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 47(5):851-863.

Schoppmann J, Schneider S, Seehagen S. 2021. Can you teach me not to be angry? Relations between temperament and the emotion regulation strategy distraction in 2‐year‐olds. Child Dev. 2021 Nov 17. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13682. Online ahead of print.

image of frustrated toddler girl covering her face with her hands by Sasiistock / istock

Content of “How to distract a 2-year-old” last modified 12/2021