It’s 5:45 p.m. and dinner is simmering away on the stove. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on the kitchen floor with a toddler in the middle of a serious meltdown.
He's having an extremely hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that he may not, in fact, have a cookie 10 minutes before dinner. He’s screaming and crying and flailing in the way only a toddler facing perceived injustice can. I’m doing my very best to practice what all the trendy parenting experts recommend.
I acknowledge his feelings saying, “You’re angry.” I take the tone of an understanding friend and exclaim, “You’re frustrated that you can’t have a cookie. It’s a total bummer.” With each word I say he becomes more and more unconsolable.
And who can blame him?
Of course it’s nice to have your feelings acknowledged, but when the person who has the power to make them turn from angst to joy with the wave of a cookie is the one doling out the empathy, it just isn’t quite right.
In my head I can’t help thinking that I sound like a total asshole. The sentiment behind this empathy strategy is lovely, but the practice, at least in my experience, is borderline twisted.
Every time I’ve tried this tactic, I've failed miserably. Perhaps if the tantrum was over something other than a boundary I had set the outcome would be different, but the more I reinforce how upset my child is. the more upset he becomes.
I’m certain that I’m not the first mom to seek advice on how to handle tantrums and I’m hoping I’m not the first to fail in implementing the recommendations. I would argue that surviving tantrums is one of the more challenging things we face in the early years of parenting. Epic meltdowns are seriously stressful for all parties involved. In fact, I think it's the stress and emotional turmoil that made this empathy advice sound so appealing.
Tantrums are difficult to ignore and even harder to respond to calmly.
Child-rearing experts like Dr. Laura Markham and Janet Lansbury encourage parents to practice this empathetic approach. They describe ways to foster calm, connected families, something I think we all want but don’t always succeed at creating.
Tantrums are difficult to ignore and even harder to respond to calmly. I didn’t want to leave my child upset and alone, nor did I want to yell at him to stop yelling. Unfortunately, I’ve found the practice of empathizing with a tantruming toddler more aspirational than functional.
Back on my kitchen floor not only do my words of empathy seem to be fueling his rage, I don’t have time to sit for 30 minutes feeling all the feels with my cookie-less toddler. My house doesn't revolve around it’s youngest member. I have a hungry family to feed.
Having failed to soothe his woes, I take him to his room where he can safely wig out while I try to move on with dinner. I really hate the sound of my child in distress, but I also know that it beats me screaming at him to cut it out.
Several minutes later, just as the rest of my family sits down to eat, the little one decides to join us. He stands in the kitchen doorway and exclaims, “I’m happy now!” He then proceeds to eat dinner, followed by—you guessed it—a cookie.