Why empathy is the best response to toddler tantrums

There was a point in time when one of my daughters began putting her baby doll, Sally, into timeout on a daily basis. She’d place her doll with its face against the wall in the kitchen and tell me, “She’s been naughty.”

Over and over, I listened to her yell at her baby, “Go to timeout!” and watched set her the doll in position on the steps or somewhere along the perimeter of the room. It was happening so much it forced me to reflect on my use, and possible overuse, of the timeout tactic. I knew I probably wouldn’t eliminate handing out timeouts completely, but I realized I needed to use them less often.

I started saving the timeouts for blatant rule breaking and started implementing this 5 step strategy when my kiddo was overly emotional and acting out because of it.

This is how it goes.

1. Empathize.

I try keep in mind that my when kid gets upset—over her PB&J being cut into four pieces instead of two or over wanting the blue cup but getting the red—that she is really upset. What seems silly to me is quite significant to her.

The geometry of a PB&J is serious business when you are 4 years old. I make it a point to let her know I recognize her emotions and that I understand how she feels. “I’m sorry you didn’t get the cup you wanted. You really like the blue cup. That’s tough.”

2. Deal out the consequence.

The key to using this strategy is to balance the tenderness with some toughness. Just because I’m showing my daughter that I understand how she feels doesn’t mean there aren’t repercussions when she goes around striking everything and everyone in her path like an angry little hornet.

“Even though you’re upset, you know you can’t kick Mom in the shins. That hurts. When we act like that, we don’t get everything we want. So, because you kicked, we’re not going to be able to watch Cinderella today.” I pick something that is easily enforceable because I don’t want this consequence to be a punishment for me.

3. Empathize again.

Wrapping up the toughness inside a cushy envelope of compassion is critical. This way she’s more mad about losing the show than she is mad at me. I tend to have a few typical phrases I use over and over. “It’s really sad, I know. It’s such a bummer because you love watching that movie. I love watching that show with you, too. How sad.”

4. Let your kid be upset.

This is the tricky part. My daughter always puts up a fight over the consequence so I brace myself. I might act calm on the outside but during this stage, my heart sometimes races on the inside.

Also, I’m not a naturally calm person so by this point usually both of us need to regroup. I allow her to cry it out while I go take a few yoga breaths. I have her release her frustrations in her bedroom because I want to teach her that it’s okay to cry when you’re upset. “It’s okay if you need to cry about it. Come back down whenever you’re done.”

Sometimes if it’s been awhile I’ll check on her and ask if she’s ready to stop crying or if she needs more time.

5. Praise regrouping and move on.

If she’s struggling to pull herself together on her own, I go up to her room and ask her if she’s ready to stop crying or if she needs more time. Once she’s calmed down, I offer a hug and let her know I’m proud of her for recovering. To gain some positive momentum, I offer up a few activities that I think will lift her spirits a bit. I let her pick almost anything really, so long as it isn’t watching Cinderella.

I’m no saint. I can’t always keep my own emotions in check well enough to pull this off every time my daughter acts out. But, the more I work at it the better I get at it. These steps have made things better for her, for me and for Sally the doll.

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