Any parent who has had a toddler knows the power of a tantrum. Not only does it completely overwhelm your child’s body, it makes them irascible and unresponsive to any solutions to their problem that you might present. Not to mention it can also throw you as the parent into an emotional tailspin, overwhelming you with frustration, and you find yourself incapable of being your best parenting self.
Guess what? I have good news for you. There is a magical tool available to you that can take that tantrum and turn it into a teaching moment where you show your child how to manage those overwhelming emotions. This tool is called EMPATHY.
Simply expressing empathy to your child, instead of solving their problem, is the goal.
All conflict begins with upset. And you cannot solve the conflict unless you first address the upset. Empathy is the way to do that.
Here’s what that might look like:
Your child is in distress. Maybe they don’t like their dinner. Maybe they don’t want to put away their toys. Maybe they don’t want to give you that sharpie they’re using to color the walls. Instead of trying to offer solutions, or putting them in time out, or explaining what they need to do, just get down on their level. Offer some gentle intentional touch. Validate their feelings. When you validate and notice their emotions that is called co-regulation.
Children lack the executive functioning skill of regulating their emotions. They require co-regulation from a trusted adult to show them how, so that as they mature they can develop the skill of emotional regulation. You co-regulate by offering empathy.
Next time your child is overcome with strong emotions and it’s triggering your own, take a breath. Notice how you are responding to them. How are you managing their emotions? Are you ignoring their feelings? Negating or minimizing their feelings? Even if their feelings are irrational or over something trivial, they are not trivial to the child. They are overwhelming for the child. So get down on their level, say “You seem sad” or “You seem frustrated” and just let their feelings be. Make space for those feelings. Validate those feelings. Your empathy will integrate their brain and help them to regulate their emotions. Only then will they be functioning in the executive portion of their brain and can accept help or find a solution to their problem.
Unless you were parented this way it may not come naturally to you. People tend to parent the way they were parented, but behavioral and brain science tells us there’s a better way. And it starts with empathy.