Maybe you’re at the park and your kiddo is melting down because you forgot to pack their favourite snack.
Or maybe you’re at home with your mother-in-law and your kiddo is having a tantrum because they want only YOU to be the one to serve the spaghetti.
Your best friend or your MIL says, “Just ignore it. They’ll calm down. Just walk away.”
Have you been told to ignore your child’s tantrum?
Let’s look at 3 reasons why you shouldn’t and what to do instead. (watch the video here)
1. If you ignore a tantrum, it might escalate. Many children will TURN UP THE VOLUME until you get it.
Find your empathy instead.
If you show empathy, your child sees and hears that you get it. Put yourself in their shoes. It is HARD being a little kid. If you can’t find your empathy about whatever is upsetting your child, connect to the emotion underneath your child’s specific upset. You might not be able to feel empathetic the toast being cut wrong, the red cup instead of the pink cup, or their favourite shirt in the washing machine – but you know what it is to be deeply disappointed or frustrated. Connect with that. It might not matter to you, but it matters to them. (If your child is too loud or upset to hear you, try to just bring empathy in your presence.)
Often, your understanding is enough to calm the storm.
2. If you ignore a tantrum, it might stop. But what lessons did your child learn? They are alone. They should suppress their feelings.
Stay close and welcome the feelings instead.
If you walk away from a melting down child, they might be able to pull it together. The threat of abandonment (literal, or love withdrawal) can be enough to stop a tantrum. But what they learned was that you are only there for them if they are feeling good. If they are having a hard time? You are out of there.
If we ignore our children’s big feelings, we are teaching them to suppress their emotions. If our children see that their tears and fears are too much for us to handle, they learn to be afraid of their emotions and try to keep them down. If we habitually try to bury our feelings, we can become depressed, anxious or explosive. We need to let our feelings pass through us freely to get over them and move on. If we teach our children to welcome their feelings, they will grow into emotionally healthy adults who can weather the ups and downs of life.
Teach your child you will always be there and that feelings don’t need to be avoided.
3. If you ignore a tantrum, it doesn’t teach your child how to better manage their feelings.
Soothe your child to teach them to soothe themselves instead.
Our response to our child’s upset helps them (or doesn’t) learn to manage their feelings. If we don’t want our kids to freak out when they are upset about something, they have to be able to soothe themselves. They learn how to do this from us. Babies and children learn to regulate their emotions- to realize that everything will be okay- when we meet their upset with our calm and loving presence. As we soothe our upset child, we are helping their brains wire (or rewire) and strengthening the neural pathways so that they become capable of soothing themselves.
Holding or staying with an upset child in a calm and loving way teaches them to handle their big feelings.
Save the problem solving for after the upset has passed.
If your child could do better, they would! Your child is emotionally dysregulated – meaning that they are overwhelmed by their feelings. In meltdown mode, your child’s thinking logical brain has been hijacked by their emotional, fight-or-flight, primitive brain. They literally can’t think straight. (This is why you and your partner can never solve a problem when you are fighting!) They have to calm down before anything can be sorted, settled or solved.
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(Want to dive deep into taming tantrums and ending meltdowns? Check out my on demand workshop)
Ignoring a tantrum can either escalate a child’s upset in their desperate attempts to be heard and understood, or it can teach your child they are alone and should numb out their feelings.
Ignoring a tantrum doesn’t help your child learn emotional self-regulation.
If you can stay calm and present, and be empathetic, you can show your child you are their for them- no matter what. You can help them feel understood and know that they WILL be okay again. You can help them learn how to ride the wave of their upsets. You can soothe your child through the tantrum and THEN you can solve the problem or teach the lesson.
Or sometimes- they just needed a good cry. You can be there for that as well!
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and parenting advice columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 12, 15, and 18). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com.