Turning a Tantrum Around with Pure Empathy

By Jessica Williams www.LoveParentingLA.com

I picked my newly five-year old son up from his first day of summer camp and the longest school/camp day he’d ever had. As he got into the car, he looked for the snack bag that he had left in the car. I had removed the bag from the hot car so as not to spoil. I offered him an apple or crackers instead. He burst into tears. He threw himself onto the floor of our car, cried, screamed and hit his fists. He was beside himself with upset and fury that his snack bag was missing.

My other two children were in their car seats looking at their brother. I looked around at the other parents loading their campers into cars.

The full volume screams continued.

Unpleasant? Yes. Unwarranted? Yes. Unnerving? Yes.

I tried a few sentences of rational explanation:

“But, Son, of course your snack bag isn’t on your car seat waiting for you. I had to bring it inside, out of the hot sun, or all the food would have been ruined. I have apples and crackers in the car which you may have, or you can wait the ten blocks of driving to our home where your snack bag awaits.” Such wonderful offerings! Another snack, delicious, ready and waiting, or, his original snack bag, less than five minutes away.

His reaction was befitting to the loss of a favorite pet.

Rather than trying to further persuade him to try my alternative snack, and in lue of reacting in frustration to his tantrum and “laying down the law,” I did a quick inventory of what I knew to be true about his physical and emotional state:

1. Hungry? Yes.

2. Tired? Yes, an early rise and a long day of camp.

3. Emotional Body? Maxed. He’d navigated a brand new camp with new children, new counselors, new routine, new location, and new expectations.

What else do I know? As his mother, I represent safety, home and comfort. He can let down his guard and breakdown. The reason doesn’t have to make sense; the missing snack bag is the bridge to unleashing his well of emotions, and his physical state of hunger and fatigue make him all the more prone to a complete meltdown.

So, what to do, when I have two other children in the car and I need my melted five-year old to get into his car seat and  I need the volume to stop before permenant damage is done to our ears?

On this summer day, I decided to try Pure Empathy. I began to witness out loud what I was seeing. I gave him five empathetic sentences, calm and clear, reflecting what I was seeing in his reaction.

  • Wow, I can see you are very upset about this.
  • I can tell by the expression on your face that you are mad that your snack bag is missing.
  • I really understand how disappointing that must have been to come to the car and not see your snack bag where you left it.
  • I can see why you are so upset since you thought it would be there waiting for you.
  • I can tell by your mad voice and by your tears that you are very frustrated.

It was like magic. After about five or six sentences of reflection, he stopped his fit, got in his seat and buckled up.

I’m not saying that this will work everytime and is the solution for all children in all situations. But, throw it in your back pocket as an option and try it out sometime. Maybe it will bring relief.

With love,

Jessica

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Jessica Williams

About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams created L.O.V.E. Parenting with a series of techniques for effective communication, deepened connection and more joy in parenting and life. Jessica is also the creator of www.UltimateParentingCourse.com with the best of today’s progressive parenting experts together in one program. Jessica is a featured expert internationally on both Mothering.com’s Ask An Expert and the upcoming www.KidsInTheHouse.com. Jessica is a regular contributor to Mothering Magazine’s All Things Mothering, LA Parent Magazine, LA Mom Magazine & DailyBuzzMoms. She has been interviewed on television and radio and taught workshops at family wellness centers, schools and doctor’s offices. Her BirthKit has helped women have a transformational & empowering birth. Jessica maintains a private coaching practice in her native Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and their three children. “Truly amazing woman. I love her advice.”—Carrie-Anne Moss. “All you have shared has helped tremendously.”—Lisa Bonet. “I am experiencing nothing short of a miracle thanks to your laser beam approach.” –Andrea Bendewald.