10 Things You're Teaching Your Toddler When You Respond Empathetically To Their Tantrums

by Sabrina Joy Stevens

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:

How To Label And Deal With Their Feelings And Behavior

In the moment, responding empathetically to a tantrum usually involves acknowledging our child's feelings ("I can see you really want that toy. You're disappointed because I said no...") and addressing their behavior ("...and now you're having a hard time keeping your hands to yourself. We're going to leave the store so you're not tempted to touch or take things you can't have").

Over time, they'll start to internalize that emotional language the same way they learn language more generally, as well as amass various strategies for helping themselves deal with their feelings as they identify them.

That Their Feelings Are Valid

We all have feelings, and we're all entitled to our feelings. Feelings are incredibly useful to us and we have them for a reason: they guide our decision-making and behavior and help keep us safe.

By responding to our toddlers' tantrums with empathy, we teach them that we honor and respect how they feel and perceive things, and that they should trust and respect themselves and their feelings, too.

That Feelings And Behavior Are Different…

Unfortunately, it's really common in our society to conflate feelings and behavior, and to treat expressing unpleasant emotions like misbehavior (particularly when the people having them are children or other folks with less social power women, people of color, religious minorities, and so on). But there's a difference, for example, between feeling angry or frustrated (a totally normal response to feeling like someone is keeping you from what you want or need), and hitting the person you're angry with (a hurtful and therefore unacceptable behavior). People should never be punished simply for having feelings; they should be held accountable for their behavior.

Conflating feelings and behavior is dangerous. It teaches people that they can't necessarily trust and/or should repress their feelings, which is confusing, difficult, and can lead to mood disorders and other problems. It also causes them to second-guess their gut feelings in dangerous social situations, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation, peer pressure, abuse, and other violence.

As parents, we want our kids to feel and heed that "Uh oh!" feeling in their gut if they're ever faced with a child abuser or another danger. That means we need to preserve and develop their ability to feel and understand their feelings. By responding empathetically to tantrums, we help our kids learn that they can trust their feelings, even if they need to be more careful about how they react to them.

...And That Behavior Can Be Controlled

While we really can't control our feelings, we can control our behavior (especially if we learn how to deal with our feelings effectively while we're young, instead of having to unlearn entrenched bad habits as we age).

When we consistently affirm their feelings, then discuss and/or curb their behavior, we help them learn to distinguish the two, and lay the groundwork for them to control their behavior on their own.

That It’s Possible To Keep Calm Under Stress…

Fighting fire with fire is helpful when you're actually fighting fires. When we're dealing with upset toddlers, getting as upset (or more so, since we're bigger and more powerful than they are) as they do only makes the situation worse for everyone involved.

Yelling at our children multiplies our stress, it teaches our kids that we're scary, and teaches them that they should be afraid of their feelings because those feelings turn us against them. By staying calm, we show them that it's possible to feel big feelings without acting out in response.

...And That You’re Able To Help Them Learn How

By showing them that we can stay calm under stress, we model important life skills for them and teach them that we are people they can come to for positive ways to deal with problems.

That You Are Able To Set And Hold Boundaries

We model setting and holding boundaries every time we draw a distinction between feelings ("You're disappointed because I said you can't have that cupcake you wanted. I know what that feels like...") and behavior ("...but I will not let you hit me or our cat").

By affirming their feelings while maintaining our original stance, we show them that we're able to hold boundaries, and we show them what it looks like to do that in a kind and empathetic way. This will be extraordinarily helpful to them in all of their relationships down the line.

That The Rules Don’t Change Based On Our Moods Or Feelings

It's much easier to hear and respect "No" from someone whom you know has taken your side of the story into account, and has arrived at their decision based on a full account of what's best for everyone involved, rather than just what they want ("Because I said so!").

By responding empathetically to their tantrums, we teach our toddlers that while we're here to help them deal with their disappointment and other big emotions, we're not going to bend or change the rules in order to pacify them or make life (temporarily) easier on ourselves.

That They Can Trust You

Trust is built in small moments, including when our kids are upset over what appear to us to be little things. By being consistent in our boundaries even when they're upset and by showing respect for their feelings instead of judging them, we teach our children that we're trustworthy.

They learn that they can rely on us for safety and reassurance regardless of their (or our) moods, and they know that they can be their true, whole selves, without worrying that we will think less of them or stop loving them.

That You Love And Respect Them Unconditionally

As parents, we love our kids no matter what. However, it may not always feel that way to them, if our actions don't show that. If we consistently behave more lovingly toward them when they're happy than when they're angry, anxious, hurt, or upset, then we teach them that our love is conditional, and that we withdraw it when we don't like how they're feeling.

By showing them that we understand and respect their feelings, even when those feelings are negative, we show them that we really do have their backs under all circumstances, not just positive ones.