The Key To Stopping Temper Tantrums May Be To Indulge Them

by Megan Zander
Originally Published: 
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Validating a child’s feelings during a tantrum may lead to fewer outbursts

We’ve all been there. You’re on a tight schedule trying to hustle to the store/school/home to make dinner when your child starts howling about something ridiculously insignificant, like the wrong song being on the radio or, if you’re my three-year-olds, the fact that there are no more unbroken crackers in their snack mugs.

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Like many moms my go-to response to these seemingly silly outbursts is to tell my kids to get the fuck over it or point out that there are much bigger things in life to worry about and then turn up the volume on the radio. But one child psychotherapist believes the key to stopping tantrums isn’t to try and get your kids to see the bigger picture, it’s to agree with your child over whatever’s got them upset, no matter how small or insignificant it is.

When Heidi Stevens, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, went to pick up her son from school the other day, she found him on the verge of a melt down over a school fundraiser prize that didn’t arrive as scheduled. But rather than turn to her usual tactics of pointing out where a late frisbee disk ranks in the grand scheme of world issues, Stevens tried a new approach — she agreed with him that the prize being late was a huge bummer, and was shocked when his tears quickly dried up and he moved on, asking for a piece of gum.

After a few days of commiserating with her kids when they were upset, Stevens noticed a definite pattern. When she agreed with her kids that whatever they were upset about sucked, they got over it much more quickly than when she tried rationalize with them. Wondering if she had stumbled across the holy grail of ways to stop a tantrum in its tracks, Stevens spoke with Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.

Hurley believes validating a child when they’re on the verge of a meltdown can shut it down before it starts. “Kids very often don’t feel heard and understood,” Hurley said. “When we meet them where they are — ‘That’s really hard’ — their response is, ‘Oh, wow. Somebody gets me.’ ”

It’s not about trying to solve the underlying issue, it’s just about having your kid feel heard. “You’re not fixing it for them and you’re not going to change the thing that happened,” says Hurley, “but you understand it feels hard and you allow them to be upset.”

As silly as it seems to think about commiserating with my son when he cries over not being able to find a stuffed Olaf when he has a basket overflowing with stuffed animals (including another, smaller stuffed Olaf) it’s true that being heard can be enough to make you feel better, even if your situation doesn’t change.

There are so many days when I find myself texting back and forth with a friend bitching about how dirty our houses are and the various ways our kids getting under our skin. Agreeing with each other about the small things that annoy us doesn’t make our kids pick up their toys or do the dishes for us, but still, venting and feeling like we’re being heard is enough to make us feel better.

If feeling like someone gets where I’m coming from is enough to stop me from losing my shit and throwing a tantrum of my own, then maybe it can work on kids too. Yelling, pleading and flat out ignoring tantrums haven’t worked for so far, but maybe empathy really is the key to less outbursts.

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