It's happened to all of us. Multiple times a day our toddlers want something that for whatever reason we can't allow, so we say no and they freak out. Their behavior pushes and tests us in unnerving ways, especially if we had been lulled into a false sense of parenting security by life with a relatively easy baby (speaking from hard-won experience, here). As tough as it can be in the moment, responding empathetically to toddlers' tantrums helps all of us get through these hard times and come out better on the other side. It helps us stay calm and connected to our kids, and teaches them valuable skills they'll use again and again throughout life.
Now, before the "This Is Why Kids These Days Are So Spoiled" Police descend, let me be clear: responding to toddlers' tantrums empathetically does not mean giving in to “bad” behavior (or giving in at all). For starters, feelings are not behavior, so empathizing with their feelings is completely distinct from addressing their behavior. Empathy is about understanding their perspective, understanding why they feel the way they do, so you can stay connected and help them deal with their feelings and behavior appropriately, and do so from a place of love rather than judgment and shame. Moreover, because feelings and behavior are distinct, it's entirely possible to empathize with their feelings, while maintaining the rules you've set and holding them accountable for problematic behavior.
Reacting to tantrums with judgment and shame may make us feel self-righteous, but shaming is always destructive over the long-term. Sometimes, it may temporarily work, by making our kids so uncomfortable that they change their behavior in the moment. But that almost always comes at a long-term cost to their mental health and emotional well-being, as well as to our relationship with them. Psychologists and other researchers have found that using shame as punishment leads to anxiety, depression, and other negative outcomes. That definitely rings true to my own experience, which is why I feel so strongly about doing things differently with my own kids. I don't want them to struggle the same way I have, or have to spend years getting back in touch with their own emotions and unlearning bad habits that make them (and everyone else in their lives) unhappy.
Now, of course, we've all had moments where we, too, were completely at the end of our rope and fell so very short of this ideal. It happens to all of us because, you know, we're only human. Instead of beating ourselves up (or living in denial about it), we can almost always go back and admit to our kids that we were wrong, apologize, and find ways to repair whatever harm we caused. As frustrating as toddler parenting can be at times, it helps to remember that toddlers are doing their best under incredibly frustrating circumstances, just like we are. Taking a breath and responding to their tantrums with empathy, rather than giving in or reacting angrily, teaches them a lot of important lessons, including: