getting rid of old toys without a meltdown


As a childcare facility owner, and as a mom, I’m more than acquainted with the “toy meltdown”. At our Steiner Ranch located children’s center, Austin Kids Retreat, we deal with toy meltdowns daily as new children try out our drop-in childcare and discover all the excitement our “new-to-them” toys have to offer.


So What Do We Trained Professionals Do During a Toy Meltdown?

how to stop a tantrum 

We get on their level and show empathy. We verbalize how we understand the child and ask questions to get them thinking and their logical brain engaged, i.e., “Oh I like that toy too – what did you like about it?”. This gives the child a chance to calm down and feel heard, rather than panicked over ‘losing’ the toy.


After we’ve calmed the overwrought emotional state, we try to redirect by talking about a new toy or activity. Or we redirect by offering the child control and choices in this frustrating situation:


“Ben I know you really enjoyed playing with that toy but it’s time to go so we have to put it back now. Would you like to show me where it goes so we can find it next time or hand it to your teacher so they can put it somewhere safe?”


You’re giving the child control to choose, yet both of the options give the desired result – the toy is put away.  We of course want to encourage this behavior so we offer positive praise for making a decision. This way, your child feels good about listening and making the right choice. Not bad at all!


But sometimes, even after we do all those steps, a child can still be emotional about the toy. If this happens remember – they are just a child with a still hugely developing, emotional brain. Put the toy out of sight and remove the child from the situation. Once they are removed, if they continue to be upset consider the following: H.A.L.T.


Is the child Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Surely as an adult you have been feeling any one of these sensations and in feeling that sensation, overreacted in a scenario you normally wouldn’t.


My advice is to redirect your focus from the toy and pause trying to reason with a child who is overtly distraught. Instead, focus on the things that could trigger the signs of HALT and work to remove them.  


Now, the above is how to deal with an emotional meltdown over a singular, maybe new toy in any given moment. And that’s a toy they may even see again!



But how should you deal with actually getting rid of toys at home?


Well the same steps can be applied in this situation too!


First- make sure your child is not in a state of HALT before getting started on this activity! This sets the scene for a positive experience.


Admit it – you’ve had things you know you should get rid of because you don’t use them anymore, but for some reason you have an emotional attachment to that item. You’ve been there right?


Good! Now that you can empathize, imagine it must feel similar or even stronger for a child who is still developing their reasoning and logic part of the brain. So prepare yourself to empathize and keep calm as you introduce the concept of donation to your child.


Next, focus on the education and logic aspect of the upcoming task.

Prepare your child beforehand to donate items.

Show them examples of children or people with less via the internet or maybe a volunteer experience. Try to educate your child on how their donations can make someone else happy and how good it feels to give!


Then before donating the toys, verbalize to your child what the plan is so they’re not caught off guard – consider verbiage that offers them to feel positive, excited, and in control of the experience:


 “You know Katherine, you have so many toys. There’s a lot we don’t play with. How about you and I have some special parent-daughter time together and you can help me go through your toys. Will you help decide what toys you no longer need and could give to someone else to make them happy?”


Prepare yourself to offer lots of specific positive praise if your child quickly makes the right decision. “Katherine, wow that’s such a big girl thing for you to give away that doll. What a kind thing to do. Give me a hug, I’m so proud of your choice!” (Hint: hugs are a great way to increase serotonin and continue the overall positive experience)


If your child struggles with donation, avoid the temptation to guilt your child into agreeing with you or yelling your frustration. The best way to encourage donation and giving is to praise the act! If the experience turns sour in any way for the child- it can become skewed as a negative thing to them.


If they do say no to donating no matter what, instead of making your child feel negative about the experience we can try to offer a few acceptable choices for them to choose from.


Option one: “Katherine, you have two really similar toys here and we can’t keep both that would just be silly- can you tell me which one would you like to keep?”


Option two, if child is still struggling: “Katherine, it seems like you’re really sad about donating this toy. How about we put all the toys you are not sure you would like to donate in a saved toy box for a little while to see if we miss them?”


If the child declares they want all the toys in the box now, then the option becomes, “Katherine we have too many toys out. Which one would you like to keep out here and which one would you like to put in the save box and we can pull it back out in a week or so?” Again we’re offering an acceptable choice that give the child some semblance of control, yet achieves our desired result.


Note: we’re also putting a time limit on the toy rotation so the child can’t declare that night or the next day they want the box down. You would simply respond, “Oh we can’t since that saved box of toys has to stay put away for a week/month before we check on it. Lets [redirect] play together with xyz instead!”


Remember to praise your child’s decision making even if they only agreed to putting toys in the toy rotation box!


If they chose not to donate, take it a step further and try to create a scenario where you can model giving behavior in your day to day life! I.e., donate something of yours and verbalize your emotions and have your child actively participate in the process of taking the item from the house – to the car – to the donation center. 

Or maybe buy a cup of coffee for the person behind you and explain to your child you wanted to make someone else feel good and happy. Have a spouse or friend praise your kindness in front of your child so they continue seeing how everyone views giving in such a positive light!


Other Ways to Donate Toys Without the Meltdown:


Start a Toy/Book Rotation!

At Austin Kids Retreat we find book rotations and moving toys around keeps our daily preschoolers and drop-in daycare visitors continually stimulated and engaged! The change-up in toys gets the creative brain firing again and re-introduces the joy of the toy- even if it’s one they have played with before.


Alternatively, if the child is too young to go through the above scenarios, toy rotation is a great way to test if they would even notice the toy is gone without committing to getting rid of it just yet!


If your child is old enough to recall which toys they have I strongly encourage not tossing their toys while they’re sleeping. By including them in the donation process, you’re keeping the process positive and building trust.



The last option to encourage getting rid of old toys, which many parents have found successful is ‘Give to Get’.


Maybe your child has a toy or activity they have been really wanting to get/do. Encourage donation or even a kids resale store in order for your child to choose their toys they no longer want, again in a positive light, and see the value of turning those toys into funds.


Use the funds from the sold items to save up and work towards this new toy or experience. I’ve found that when kids work hard to earn a toy/activity then they tend to value the item/experience much more than if it were simply given to them.


At the end of the day, remember that donating your beloved items is a learning experience and what may be hard one year, could come easily the next year!

I encourage all families to make the donation experience part of your families’ routine so it becomes a familiar process. Sooner or later, your child will be a pro at spreading kindness!