How to Respond to Toddler Tantrums With Empathy - Baby Chick

How to Respond to Toddler Tantrums With Empathy

ParentingUpdated November 16, 2021

by Dr. Deanna Barry

Board-Certified Pediatrician


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I notice the overwhelmed mother’s cheeks turning bright red, her breathing quickening, her eyes widening and darting around the store, wondering if anybody else is watching this all unfold. Her son, maybe 2.5 years old, has erupted into a full-blown toddler tantrum in the middle of the store aisle. He is lying face down on the floor, kicking his legs, stomping his fists, and just wailing.

Watching this scene makes my heart race and chest tighten a bit, partly because my heart aches for this mom but also because I know this very easily could have been me and likely will be me again very soon. The mother’s eyes catch mine, and I gently smile at her. “I totally get it. This happens to me anytime I bring my son too.” Her shoulders relax a bit, and she smiles in return, thankful to not be completely alone in this moment and this stage of motherhood. All it takes is that little bit of encouragement for her to take a deep breath, compose herself, and for her attention to return to her son with newfound focus and stamina. And then she handles the situation at hand like the mother boss that she is.

You Are Not Alone

Chances are, if you have ever parented a toddler and dared to take them anywhere in public, you have found yourself in a similar situation as this, probably more than once. The most common triggers for toddler tantrums are when our little one is hungry, overtired, feels overstimulated, or has an unexpected change in routine. Get curious and pay attention to the pattern of your child’s meltdowns and what the underlying need might be behind them. Are they wanting connection or to feel loved? Are they looking for security or safety? Is it time for them to eat or take a nap?

Even if you make sure your child is fully rested, eats lunch right before you leave, has a clean diaper, and anything else you can think of and can control has been accounted for, these moments still happen to the best of us. That is because toddler tantrums, as frustrating as they are for the caregiver and the child, are completely normal and developmentally appropriate. They are healthy and necessary. Be encouraged and know that you can be empowered to handle these difficult moments and remain in complete control. In fact, our children depend on it.

Toddler tantrums are your child’s way of showing that their feelings are so overwhelming inside their body that they can’t stay there any longer but need to burst out in the form of dysregulated behavior. Toddler emotions are big. Your child acts out of control because they feel out of control. Let me repeat that and let it soak in. Your child acts out of control because they feel out of control. They aren’t giving you a hard time; they are having a hard time. That shifts things a bit, doesn’t it? They don’t want to misbehave or feel bad any more than we want them to. However, we can only control our reaction and response in these moments; we cannot control our child or stop the tantrum before it has been played out.

Shift Your Focus

Kelly Nadel, a mother herself and LCSW trained by Dr. Rebecca Kennedy (a psychologist well known as Dr. Becky), has terrific advice and tools she offers her clients to handle toddler tantrums. I had an opportunity to speak with her about precisely this, and she has so much wisdom and encouragement to share. Her parenting approach, which she describes as connected- or relationship-based, fully aligns with many of today’s parents’ desires and values in their parenting style.

One thing to understand is that there is so much emotion beneath a toddler tantrum. If we address only the behavior we want to stop, then there is a large and crucial part of the experience that we are disregarding. Instead of focusing on the behavior, what if we helped them address and deal with the underlying emotion? I propose we shift our focus and approach our children with the mentality that we want to help them, not discipline them or “fix” their behavior.

Just as difficult as it is to parent our child while they have a toddler tantrum, it is tough for your child to figure out what is happening within their bodies. Accepting that your child is struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to be patient and teach them and help them through their distress. This adjustment in your mindset may just be the ticket to help you transform your relationship with them and promote healthy development. Empathy is defined as the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. I want to invite you to discover how you might respond to tantrums as a steady leader with clear boundaries but also with gentleness and empathy.

Start By Breathing

When you start to sense the buildup and beginnings of a meltdown, the first thing you should do is pause and take a deep breath. Our reactions influence their behavior so do your best to stay regulated and calm. I know (trust me, I do!) that it is challenging to do but try not to overreact or yell. Notice out loud that you’ve noticed a shift, perhaps “Wow, something just happened here.” Get down on their level, so they feel seen, heard, and reassured that you are there with them.

Encourage them to take slow deep breaths with you. Together breathe in for three seconds, hold for two seconds, and breathe out for five seconds. The exhalation must be longer and more drawn out than the inhalation to cue the parasympathetic nervous system to relax their body. Breathe deeply from the belly, not the chest.

Kelly notes that another way to activate the parasympathetic system is by humming or shushing. She states that you can begin practicing breathing exercises as young as 18 months with “hot cocoa breaths.” Teach this skill in advance when your child is happy and calm, so they already know the technique when it is needed. If your child resists and does not want to participate, just continue to model the breathing yourself. Normalize the coping skills you want your child to learn.

Maintain a Safe Space

Next comes strategies. Maintaining safety is a top priority. You may need to contain them lovingly or put them in a place to be calm, reminding them that they are not being punished or in trouble but that it is your job to keep them safe. Maintain the boundary that you will not allow them to hurt anybody else if they try to hit, kick, or throw something.

Acknowledge and Validate

Once you are past the point of no return, try to offer up some idea of what you notice is happening. One of the most important things we can do is acknowledge and validate our child’s feelings. We want to reassure our children that all feelings, especially big or dark ones, are allowed, and some behaviors need to be limited. Help your child who may not have the words to name or articulate their feelings to expand their emotional language. Our children rely on us to use our communication skills that they don’t yet have to explain their feelings appropriately.

It is so powerful for a child to hear their caregiver say, “I believe you. I see that you are feeling ___ right now. It is okay to feel ___. I am feeling ___ right now too.” Let them know that you also experience these feelings. This language can make such a tremendous impact.

Go through the experience with them. Sit down. Remain calm. Soften your heart. Be present. Observe. Remain confident. Give them space if they are angry or move toward them for an embrace if they are sad. Be clear and hold your gentle limits. Show them that they are not too much for you. Let them see you in control, the calm next to their chaos. Tell them that you are right there with them and that they are safe with you. Again, they need to feel heard, seen, validated and understood.

Build New Coping Skills

Little building happens during the toddler tantrum. It needs to play itself out. Their frontal lobe is offline. The child is not “in themself,” so to speak. Once they release all of that emotion, they come back online and get back in their body. You cannot judge the effectiveness of your interventions based on their immediate response.

Later, when things have settled down, you can come back together and build coherence. You can talk about what might happen next time or how they can effectively redirect frustrated energy. Perhaps they can squeeze and release their hands, jump into a pile of pillows, push a wall, squeeze or throw soft balls. You can even get creative and build a calming toolbox. Role-playing is a great way to help your child develop new coping skills. You can share a story of a time when you shared those same feelings. Ending with a story of sameness will allow you to move forward, feeling connected.

Your Goal is Not Perfection

We need to protect, validate their emotional experiences, show empathy, and set boundaries. Kelly reminds us that our goal for handling these moments should not be perfection. “Don’t be too much bigger than them. It is about connection, relationship building, and stress tolerance. If everyone is doing their job correctly, things should look pretty messy. Parenting toddler tantrums is hard because we are learning something. It is recognizing that my kid is doing exactly what they are supposed to do and deciding, ‘how do I want to show up?’”

Encourage your child to fully feel their feelings and be able to recognize their feelings. Down the line, this will help with identity and confidence in trusting themselves. Kelly encourages us, “The one thing we want to take home is when we see emotions we want to greet the emotion, meet them with compassion and curiosity, and permit them to fully embrace their emotions so they don’t close down but open emotion up.” We parent our children now in the way we want them to mature and develop. Kids initially dysregulated will hopefully co-regulate with a parent and ultimately will grow to be self-regulated adults.

Love Them at Their Most Unlovable

By showing our children empathy, we build empathy in them so they can mature into compassionate adults. We develop kindness in our children by showing them what it looks like to be kind to others. By noticing feelings and emotions in others and pointing them out to our children, they become more aware and think of others. Remind your child that they are courageous when they come to you with big feelings. If you are ever in doubt of what to do and how to handle your child’s behavior, remember to focus on your connection. Remain united. Prioritize the relationship with your child, first and foremost. Loving our children in their most unlovable moments is what this is all about.

Disclaimer: While I am a doctor, I am not your child’s doctor. All content presented in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and does not establish any kind of doctor/patient relationship. Speak to your child’s healthcare provider about any questions or concerns you may have.


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