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 certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com
What types of phrases would you use in these situations? For example, my (almost) 2 year old wanted to push his stroller by himself down the sidewalk when we were visiting friends.
He would throw a tantrum when we had to pick him up to get across the street quickly, or quickly steer the stroller away from flower beds. While we wanted to give him the freedom to push the stroller, we also needed to get somewhere as it was getting cold outside.
Hi Kate!I would just say something that a- shows that you understand and b- sets the limit “I know! You want to walk by yourself and mama had to pick you up and now you’re so upset. I understand.” and “You were having so much fun pushing the stroller and mama had to steer it away from the flowers and you are so upset. I understand.” xx
Awesome article. Looking forward to reading more!
Hi, it is always interesting to read this or other highly specialised professionals recommending how to manage 2 years old tantrums. I try, and sometimes it worked, but mostly didn’t. Having twins (boys) makes everything challenging and unfortunately, I end up shouting and loosing my patience instead. I would love to be less of a shouter mum, but I run out of options when the two of them start doing their mischievous work (I know, they are children and just in a stage of discovery and pushing limits) and I cannot stop them. What should I do? How do you manage tantrums and behaviour at this age on twins? All the recommendations I have always read seemed for only children to me. Can you help me? Where can I find more help apart from going to a psychologist?
Hi Marina! Yes it is so hard with twins! (I can only imagine!) I’ll link to an article for how to get kids to listen and also my free Stop Yelling course- those might help but not specifically with the twin thing! I think enlisting them in cooperation by getting them to play (can you two pretend you are baby monkeys and scamper up the stairs? etc) and help them with their big feelings by lots of laughter and crying are your best bets! Also maybe you could join a Facebook group for parents of multiples?
Good luck! xx
Here are the links that might help:
I appreciate your empathy towards toddlers. I watch my granddaughter and she is going thru this phase during naptime and bedtime. She gets so upset with me. It has even brought me to tears when I look in her eyes and see the confusion. Your article really helped.
Aw, thanks for your kind words. Your granddaughter is lucky to have you!
Great article. We are grandparents of an19 month old my son and his wife and grandson live with us since and before he was born. He has been having tantrums for many reasons. We will all be downstairs and he wants to do something like go drive dads car in the garage but grandpa has to eat dinner so he gets upset. We are told to walk away and let him cry not to acknowledge him and to ignore him. We disagree and have a difficult time following this rule from his parents. There was a big argument about it. Because grandpa picked him up when he had his hands up wanting to sit with grandpa now we are the bad guys because we didn’t follow the rules. Which we only see him in the evening while they cook their dinner otherwise they are upstairs in their space. We always try to redirect him or use distraction. They are completely ignoring him not looking at him and walk away. Of course they are assuring he is safe
This is so tough! Maybe you can share this post with them. Hang in there. Supporting him when he’s upset while holding a necessary limit will help him develop emotional health and resilience.
Hi Sarah, thanks alot for this helpful article, but how about tantrums when you’re leaving for work…. I try to calm down my two and a half years old kid when he starts crying and asking for me… confirming his feelings and accepting them.. and trying to give several ideas how to entertain and enjoy his time till I return… However, he keeps on crying till I leave… Though I always leave him either with his father.. or my sister…
Hi Sherine! That sounds heart-breaking! However, if he is crying with someone he loves and trusts, and you leave, that doesn’t count as ignoring him! 🙂
It’s important for him to be able to miss you and express his feelings (in tears!) that he doesn’t want his sweet mama to go! And that’s okay! If your husband or sister can empathize with him- “I know, you miss mama! You don’t want her to go to work. This is so hard. You feel sad. I understand”- and hold him through the upset with love, he will be just fine <3 It's GOOD that he can express his feelings this way! Crying helps him process his big feelings and surviving big feelings helps him become emotionally resilient. xx
Thank you for the article Sarah.
I would love to “stay close and welcome the feelings instead” but my 4 year old son hits and kicks if I try to empathize or give him a hug. I do tell him not to hit but I dont think he is really listening….it just increases when I tell him to stop hitting. What should I do instead…ignoring as you say is not a good option?
Maybe he needs a little space. “You are so upset. I’m right here when you’re ready for a hug.”
Also, you might be interested in this video about how to respond to aggression. Good luck! https://www.facebook.com/peacefulparentingcoach/videos/2079536445636575/
Saw the video, very insightful… that change in perspective is a must. Will implement that and your suggestions!
I’m sorry but I do not agree with this at all. Tantrums are 100% not ok, and are often used to manipulate parents. Giving any attention whatsoever to a tantruming child encourages the behavior. For example, if you hug and comfort your child when they melt down over something very minor (wrong color bowl, for example) they learn that this bad behavior earns them a hug from mom. Which isn’t ok. What we do in our house, is ignore the tantrum until it stops, then, when everybody has it together again, we calmly talk about it. Example: “now, I know it can be super hard when your favorite toy has to be washed. You miss them and want to hold them but you have to wait. That can make us sad, and I understand. But it isn’t ok to throw fits and misbehave when we’re sad.”
The only type of crying that should be “hugged out” as we call it is if there is actually something wrong. If the child got hurt, isn’t feeling well, had a bad day at school, etc. But, never console a tantrum.
Wow. It’s a matter of perspective, the things that are big and important to the child are different to those of the parent. Tantrums are an emotional response not a bad behaviour choice. I’m struggling with my 4 year old but I would never ignore her when she is upset, and the tantrums are uncontrollable upset.
i ignored my 2 yr old during his Tatums and one day I notice he didnt do them anymore.. I was so happy I took my doctor’s advice.
Yes ignoring a tantrum is a way to make them stop. However, you’ve missed out on the opportunity to help your child with his big feelings and to meet whatever need that was driving his meltdowns.
I’m 100% onboard with peaceful parenting. I have never raised my voice at my 4 year old daughter and have always consoled her with empathetic words and hugs during times of difficult emotions. She LOVES to be carried, but her father and I have bad backs and she’s getting too heavy to pick up. She recently started having meltdowns saying “I can’t walk” and throwing herself on the floor when we can’t carry her. I try to tell her calmly and emphatically that she can do it and she’s strong but that mama’s back hurts and I can’t pick her up, but she escalates quickly and will cry so hard that she nearly starts choking. The other day she did this while I sat nearby on the couch (in view) and I told her she could come get a big hug and a lollipop from the kitchen whenever she was ready to walk. It took a while but she finally ran to me for a big hug and I spoke very sweetly to her and held her on the couch for an hour. She calmed down as soon as she ran to me but I’m wondering if there was anything I could’ve done differently? If i tried to hug her while she was on the floor she’s just start climbing me like a tree and that hurt my back too much and makes her even more upset when I have to stand up. She has this same tantrum when my mother is watching her, who also can’t pick her up. Thoughts?
That is a tough one! I write an advice column for Today’s Parent magazine- I will answer there and email you when it’s up. In the meantime, please feel free to ask in our Facebook group! Peaceful Parenting with Sarah Rosensweet