Empathise with your child’s feelings to avoid tantrums

After giving your child full attention (see cartoons 2 and 3), empathizing with and affirming your child’s feelings is another important step to solving conflicts or avoiding tantrums. When children know that their parents are not only truly listening but also empathizing and affirming their feelings, they are better able to calm down and regain composure. This often helps avoid full-blown temper tantrums.

When children become upset about something that may not seem significant to parents (e.g., the destruction of a flower or loss of a toy), parents need to respect children’s fears and concerns and not belittle them. Talking to children about their worries shows empathy and helps children verbalize their feelings (Durrant, 2016). This is a situation with no place for criticism or sarcasm, which are hurtful to children. Instead, parents should seek to understand their children’s feelings and repeat it back to them to show that they understand and relate to them (in cartoon: “Flowers dying can be upsetting. Is that why you are upset?”).

It is also important to value and acknowledge when children discuss their feelings by rewarding the behavior and encourage information sharing in the future (in cartoon: “You are so caring about living things! That is really nice!”). Indeed, parents raising compassionate children should be proud of this accomplishment. By providing recognition for such behaviors, parents increase children’s self-efficacy and improve their likelihood of engaging in more social and healthy behaviors. This sensitive and responsive parenting has many wonderful benefits, such as more secure parent-child attachments, increased self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social development among children (Juffer, Bakermans-Kranenburg & Van Ijzendoorn, 2008; Laible, Carlo & Roesch, 2004). Difficult conversations are also an opportunity for parents to act as positive emotional coaches who talk through tough issues rather than dismiss them. This also has the benefit of encouraging children’s emotional development in the process.

Key take-aways to empathize with your child’s feelings:

1) Encourage children to talk about their feelings, by asking questions (in cartoon: “Flowers dying can be upsetting. Is that why you are upset?”)

2) Acknowledge feelings. Describe the feelings to show that you understand how they feel and are here to help (in cartoon: “Sometimes, people don’t realize they are hurting the flowers. This makes me sad too”).
3) Provide positive reinforcement to encourage sharing feelings. By providing recognition and validation, parents encourage these behaviors, which will help promote social development.


Give your child full attention to defuse a temper tantrum

Giving children full attention with active listening is a very effective way to help children become calmer and re-gain their composure. Simple cues, both verbal and physical, can show children that they are truly being listened to and can help avoid tantrums. Once children feel that their parents are on their side, they are able to become calmer and are more open to finding and accepting new solutions.

When it comes to good parenting, actions often speak louder than words. It is simply not possible to provide children with the attention they need while multitasking. Children are keenly aware of whether they’re truly being heard. Active listening means that parents are completely tuned-in to their children; it is reflected in both words and body language (in cartoon: “Here, sit down so you can tell me”). Listening with care and sensitivity shows kids that they are really being heard, and helps them calm down and focus on finding constructive solutions to their problems. Active listening by parents also promotes children’s emotional resilience (Wolin et al., 2000) and is a key aspect of developmental parenting, which is believed to support many positive child outcomes (Roggman et al., 2008).

Developmental parenting involves:

1) Affection, through positive expressions of warmth toward the children (sitting next to them, directly facing them, etc)
2) Responsiveness, by attending to children’s cues, and
3) Encouragement, by supporting children’s activities and interests.

The manner in which you demonstrate affection, responsiveness and encouragement matters a lot. For example, by putting aside computers and other distractors (in cartoon: the dad puts his computer to the side), by kneeling down to the child’s height or simply positioning their body to face the children, parents show children that they are their first priority. Not only does this enhance a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth, but it also models the behavior we want from our children. By tuning-in to children, parents help children develop healthy social habits and listening skills that facilitate positive relationships with both parents and peers alike.

This does not mean that children should always be allowed to interrupt their parents all the time. For example, when parents need quiet time to get work done, they should first communicate and set expectations with their children to reduce or avoid interruptions. Children should be made aware that there are boundaries to respect and rules to follow (See Magic Way 3). However, in situations where a child can expect help from parents, giving your child full attention, using both verbal and physical cues, can be very effective to help defuse tension and avoid temper tantrums.

Key take-aways to give your child full attention:

1) Affection: demonstrate signs of affection through positive expressions of warmth, for example by inviting your child to sit next to you (in cartoon: “Here, sit down so you can tell me”).

2) Responsiveness: give physical or verbal cues that you are giving full attention, for example by putting your computer aside for a minute, or kneeling down to speak to your child.

3) Setting boundaries: giving your child full attention does not mean that your child should always come first. Parents who need quiet time to get work done should firmly set expectations early with their children. Children need to be made aware that there are important boundaries to respect and rules to follow (See Magic Way 3).


Understand your child’s feelings to better connect and avoid tantrums

Effective communication between parents and children is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. Such communication requires that parents become aware of and understand their children’s feelings and emotions. Parents who empathize and connect emotionally with their children are more likely to enjoy deep and meaningful relationships. According to research by the Gottman Research Institute (2019), this parenting approach involves five essential ingredients:
1) awareness of emotions,
2) connecting,
3) listening,
4) naming emotions, and
5) finding solutions.

Parents who connect with children in this way build emotional intelligence in their children. Of course, connecting and having meaningful communication with children in addition to understanding their feelings and emotions, is not always as easy as it sounds. Getting children to share their feelings can feel like squeezing water from a rock! Doing so requires a healthy balance between ignoring child reluctance, versus pushing too hard for information, which may result in a child shutting down altogether. Non-communicative children often want the help and support of their parents, but sometimes have trouble verbalizing their feelings. Working with children so they can recognize the vast array of emotions that they may experience (e.g., happiness, sadness, anger, frustration etc), is important to this method’s success.

Parents should 1) detect when a child gets frustrated (“awareness of emotions”), and 2) understand how to gently nudge for more information to better understand the situation and connect with the child (in cartoon: “You seem very upset. Did something bad happen at school?”). This helps parents understand their child’s emotions and feelings and respond accordingly.

When parents approach such situations with warmth and empathy, children learn that their parents are always there for them. This positive parenting style is not always easy, especially when frustrated kids express feelings in an indirect way, for example with urgent wants and needs that may be out of the question (in cartoon: “I want to go to the park now!!”). In the heat of the moment, a parent’s first impulse might be to deny the child’s requests without realizing the underlying reasons for the behavior. This is a surefire way to build resentment with your child and (unknowingly) aggravate a tantrum.

Instead, by being aware of children’s emotions and using a supportive parenting style, parents acknowledge their children’s needs and feelings (e.g., “Yes, that sounds fun, I understand why you are so interested in it”). When speaking to children with love and understanding, parents model a calm demeanor that teaches children emotion regulation. Ultimately, when children do open-up to parents by verbalizing their feelings, parents should recognize and encourage this behavior (in cartoon: “it’s good that you are letting me know”), so that it is repeated many times in the future.

Key take-aways to understand your child’s feelings:

1) Being aware of feelings: the sooner you understand something is wrong, the easier it will be for you to help.

2) Connecting & listening: gently nudge for more information (in cartoon: “Tell me how you feel” and “I understand you want to go to the park. But tell me why you are upset”).

3) Naming feelings: naming feelings and emotions in a sincere and caring way will show your child that you understand them and are on their side.

4) Encouraging sharing feelings. This will encourage proactive sharing in the future and help build emotional intelligence and social skills (in cartoon: “It’s good that you are letting me know”).