Menu

Why empathy is the best response to toddler tantrums

Their emotions are real. Getting the red cup when she wanted the blue cup is significant to them.

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.

Join Motherly

In This Article

    Is the BabyBjörn portable travel crib worth it?

    100% unequivocally yes.

    I have this weird brown birthmark on the bottom of my right foot near my pinkie toe and my mother always said, "That means you'll never stay still. You'll travel everywhere." (She's full of interesting superstitions like that.) I'm not sure if it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or what but I've always had a love for travel, and before we had a child (in those glorious pre-pandemic times), my husband and I traveled all over Europe, did two road trips across different parts of the United States and even flew all the way around the world to visit my family in the Philippines.

    I had this weird idea that I had to get all my traveling in before I became a mom. Because once you become a mom, you just become content sitting at home with the kids, right?

    Eh, wrong.

    Keep reading Show less
    Shop

    This post is brought to you by Staples. While this was a sponsored opportunity, all content and opinions expressed here are my own.

    One of the biggest changes in my household once my daughter started homeschooling was that, suddenly, everything and everyone in our home had to start pulling double duty. While I was used to wearing a lot of hats (mom, wife and WFH employee, to name a few), suddenly our dining room was also pulling shifts as a classroom. My laptop was also a virtual teacher. Our living room hutch was also a school supply closet.

    If I didn't want my home to be overrun with an abundance of clutter, I had to find products that could multitask. Here are 10 products that are saving this WFH + homeschooling mama right now.

    Stylish storage cabinet

    Whether I need a place to keep the printer or just want to keep crayons and colored pencils organized, this pretty cabinet provides a mixture of exposed and hidden storage without clashing with my living room decor.

    White board calendar + bulletin board

    With so much on our plates these days, I need a visual reminder of our daily schedule or I'll forget everything. This dry erase version makes it easy to keep track of Zoom meetings and virtual classes—and I also love using the corkboard to display my daughter's latest work from art class.

    Natural Recycled 3-Ring Binder

    From tracking our curriculum progress to organizing my family's paperwork, I can never have enough binders. Even better, this neutral version is pretty enough that I can display them on the bookshelf.

    Bamboo storage drawers

    The instant you start homeschooling, it can feel like you're suddenly drowning in papers, craft supplies and more. Fortunately, these simple bamboo drawers can be tucked into the cabinet or even displayed on top (seriously, they're that cute!) to keep what we need organized and close at hand.

    Laminated world map

    I love this dry-erase map for our geography lessons, but the real secret? It also makes a cute piece of wall decor for my work space.

    Rolling 7-drawer cabinet

    When you're doing it all from home, you sometimes have to roll with the punches—I strongly recommend getting an organizational system that rolls with you. On days when both my husband and I are working from home and I need to move my daughter's classes to another room, this 7-drawer cabinet makes it easy to bring the classroom with us.

    Letterboard

    From our first day of school photo to displaying favorite quotes to keep myself motivated, this 12"x18" letterboard is my favorite thing to display in our home.

    Expandable tablet stand

    Word to the wise: Get a pretty tablet stand you won't mind seeing out every day. (Because between virtual playdates, my daughter's screen time and my own personal use, this thing never gets put away.)

    Neutral pocket chart

    Between organizing my daughter's chore chart, displaying our weekly sight words and providing a fits-anywhere place to keep supplies on hand, this handy little pocket chart is a must-have for homeschooling families.

    Totable fabric bins

    My ultimate hack for getting my family to clean up after themselves? These fabric bins. I can use them to organize my desk, store my oldest's books and even keep a bin of toys on hand for the baby to play with while we do school. And when playtime is over, it's easy for everyone to simply put everything back in the bin and pop it in the cabinet.

    Looking for study solutions for older children? Hop over to Grown & Flown for their top picks for Back to School.

    Work + Money

    Cameron Diaz on having a baby at 47: 'You really have to work hard for it'

    "The only pressure for me now is I have to live to be, like, 107, you know? No pressure!"

    This is the decade that saw the face of first-time motherhood change. The number of first-time mamas under 30 is shrinking, while more and more women are becoming moms after 40.

    Cameron Diaz is one of them. The actress and businesswoman, now 48, became a mom in January at the age of 47. In a new episode of Naomi Campbell's YouTube series, No Filter, Diaz opens up about what it's like to become a mom in your fourth decade.

    "A lot of people do it the other way around ... they get married [and] have a family in their youth," says Diaz."I'm kind of doing it in the second half of my life."

    Keep reading Show less
    News