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Ignoring your toddler’s tantrum doesn’t work, but showing compassion does

Compassion is not a reward—it is the heart of relationships.

Ignoring your toddler’s tantrum doesn’t work, but showing compassion does

Time and again, I see and hear advice to ignore children who are in emotional distress. Those who both give and receive this advice do so with the best of intentions. They love children and believe it is in a child’s best interest to “train them out of tantrums” by ignoring because they believe that anything else will reinforce or fuel this “bad behavior.”


There are several things at play here that we need to address in order to bring compassion to our responses with our children.

1. We have subscribed to the idea that tantrums are bad behavior.

We believe children have tantrums in a calculative manner with the intent to manipulate us to either give them attention or give them something they want. When we understand how the developing brain of a child works, we can quickly debunk this idea that young children (babies and toddlers) are being deliberately manipulative.

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Rather, true tantrums occur when the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain) becomes overloaded and alarms trigger the lower brain, sending them into a meltdown. When the lower brain is in charge, children have little control over their actions, and screaming, kicking, and crying are a discharge of the overwhelming feelings.

Many things can overload the limbic system and trigger the lower brain, and to us, those things may seem very insignificant—silly even—and so our initial response is often dismissive. Who really gets that upset over the way a sandwich is cut? This judgment blocks our compassion because when we trivialize the emotional experience of another, we feel validated in not offering our support.

2. Tantrums make us uncomfortable.

There’s another reason we want to ignore a tantrum and that is the emotional response it invokes in our own brains. Because we humans are so interconnected, our mirror neurons are firing when we see our child in distress and it causes us to feel like we are in distress, too.

We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we push the cause of our discomfort (the child) away. Ignoring is basically like constructing a mental wall that doesn’t allow their pain to become our pain, and here again, trivializing their experience comes in handy because we use that “logic” (thanks to our fully developed frontal lobes) to ease our own discomfort.

3. We are afraid that compassion will reward the tantrum.

Connection is one of our most basic human needs. We all long to feel heard, validated, loved, accepted and attached, not only when we are our best selves, but also when we are our worst selves. Imagine a spouse, partner, or friend withdrawing their attention and warmth from you because you are crying, upset and in emotional distress.

What would it do for your relationship? How would it affect your emotional state? Now imagine that these people gave you a shoulder to cry on, listened as you communicated your frustration or sadness, and then, even if they couldn’t solve your problem for you, they said “I’m here for you.” Now ask yourself those same two questions.

Compassion is not a reward—it is the heart of relationships.

Psychologist, science writer, and emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman says, “True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” To extend compassion, we have to be willing to allow ourselves to feel our own discomfort and yet have the emotional stability to not become entangled in their distress but to be the lighthouse that shows them the way through the storm.

Different Kinds of Tantrums:

Thus far, I’ve been talking about the true emotional overwhelm, or what Tina Payne-Bryson calls “downstairs tantrums.” Read Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums for a complete explanation.

Sometimes, particularly in older children beyond the preschooler years, a child will “pitch a fit” in an attempt to get you to give in. Hey, the frontal lobe is maturing! This isn’t true emotional distress, and parents can tell the difference. Even during this type of tantrum, though, you can still show compassion while standing your ground. When he realizes the fit doesn’t get him what he wants, it won’t be a tool he uses, and when you stay compassionate and calm in the face of it, he’ll learn what it looks like to show maturity.

The Bottom Line:

We don’t have to make a new sandwich and cut it the right way, buy them the toy, or let them stay up an hour later nor do we have to send them to their room or ignore them completely. Neither approach is the best for fostering emotional health.

Instead, I believe in offering compassionate, loving support while holding our boundaries and then, once the storm has passed, actively teaching children about their emotions and how they can respond when they feel upset. This approach strengthens relationships, resilience, and emotional intelligence.

Children must learn that kicking and screaming on the floor is not the way to deal with upsets, but they don’t learn how to handle those emotions by kicking and screaming alone. They learn by watching how we handle our upsets and by what we teach them before and after an emotional meltdown.

So don’t ignore! Help.


This article was originally published on Positive Parenting.


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    These challenges from Nike PLAYlist are exactly what my child needs to stay active

    Plus a fall family bucket list to keep everyone moving all season long.

    While it's hard to name anything that the pandemic hasn't affected, one thing that is constantly on my mind is how to keep my family active despite spending more time indoors. Normally, this time of year would be spent at dance and gymnastics lessons, meeting up with friends for games and field trips, and long afternoon playdates where we can all let off a little steam. Instead, we find ourselves inside more often than ever before—and facing down a long winter of a lot more of the same.

    I started to search for an outlet that would get my girls moving safely while we social distance, but at first I didn't find a lot of solutions. Online videos either weren't terribly engaging for my active kids, or the messaging wasn't as positive around the power of movement as I would like. Then I found the Nike PLAYlist.

    I always knew that Nike could get me moving, but I was so impressed to discover this simple resource for parents. PLAYlist is an episodic sports show on YouTube that's made for kids and designed to teach them the power of expressing themselves through movement. The enthusiastic kid hosts immediately captured my daughter's attention, and I love how the physical activity is organically incorporated in fun activities without ever being specifically called out as anything other than play. For example, this segment where the kids turn yoga into a game of Paper Scissors Rock? Totally genius. The challenges from #TheReplays even get my husband and me moving more when our daughter turns it into a friendly family competition. (Plus, I love the play-inspired sportswear made just for kids!)

    My daughter loves the simple Shake Ups at the beginning of the episode and is usually hopping off the couch to jump, dance and play within seconds. One of her favorites is this Sock Flinger Shake Up activity from the Nike PLAYlist that's easy for me to get in on too. Even after we've put away the tablet, the show inspires her to create her own challenges throughout the day.

    The best part? The episodes are all under 5 minutes, so they're easy to sprinkle throughout the day whenever we need to work out some wiggles (without adding a lot of screen time to our schedule).

    Whether you're looking for simple alternatives to P.E. and sports or simply need fun ways to help your child burn off energy after a day of socially distanced school, Nike's PLAYlist is a fun, kid-friendly way to get everyone moving.

    Need more movement inspiration for fall? Here are 5 ways my family is getting up and getting active this season:

    1. Go apple picking.

    Truly, it doesn't really feel like fall until we've picked our first apple. (Or had our first bite of apple cider donut!) Need to burn off that extra cinnamon-sugar energy? Declare a quick relay race up the orchard aisle—winner gets first to pick of apples at home.

    To wear: These Printed Training Tights are perfect for when even a casual walk turns into a race (and they help my daughter scurry up a branch for the big apples).

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    We love to pick up a few locally grown pumpkins to decorate or cook with each year. Challenge your child to a "strongman" contest and see who can lift the heaviest pumpkin while you're there.

    To wear: Suit up your little one in comfort with this Baby Full Zip Coverall so you're ready for whatever adventures the day brings.

    3. Have a nature scavenger hunt.

    Scavenger hunts are one of my favorite ways to keep my daughter preoccupied all year long. We love to get outside and search for acorns, leaves and pinecones as part of our homeschool, but it's also just a great way to get her exercising those gross motor skills whenever the wiggles start to build up.

    To wear: It's not truly fall until you break out a hoodie. This cozy Therma Elite Kids Hoodie features a mesh overlay to release heat while your child plays.

    4. Have a touch-football game.

    Tip for parents with very little kids: It doesn't have to last as long as a real football game. 😂 In fact, staging our own mini-games is one of our favorite ways to get everyone up and moving in between quarters during Sunday football, and I promise we all sleep better that night.

    To wear: From impromptu games of tag to running through our favorite trails, these kids' Nike Air Zoom Speed running shoes are made to cover ground all season long.

    5. Create an indoor obstacle course.

    Pretending the floor is lava was just the beginning. See how elaborate your personal course can get, from jumping on the couch to rolling under the coffee table to hopping down the hallway on one foot.

    To wear: These ready-for-any-activity Dri-FIT Tempo Shorts are perfect for crawling, hopping and racing—and cuddling up when it's time to rest.

    This article was sponsored by Nike. Thank you for supporting the brands that supporting Motherly and mamas.

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    Croquet set

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    The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

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    Wooden digital camera

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    Pull-along hippo

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    Baby forest fox ride-on

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    Balance board

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    $75

    Meadow ring toss game

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    Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

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