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Mothering › Child Articles › Turning a Tantrum Around with Pure Empathy

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,


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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.


Comments (6)

Jessica, I do this every time my newly 4 year old melts down. He is super active (physically) but gets way overstimulated... quickly. The best way for me to "talk him down" is to describe exactly what he must be feeling and thinking... it has worked so well for us, and I feel like he is so grateful to have his feelings put in to words. Great post!
Dear Mel, Thanks so much for writing in, I appreciate it. I am so glad you are finding success with the empathetic approach with your son. All the best, Jessica
My son is 19 months old, and has similar tantrums. Already I've learned that empathy helps a ton. First I move him to a new room, or outside. Usually I bring something for him to drink. Then we sit, and I squeeze him tight, and if that doesn't help, I begin to give him a massage. All the while, I speak these types of affirming statements you're mentioning. He doesn't understand all my words, but he definitely knows that I'm on his team. Eventually he crawls in my lap, sips his cup, and after a few minutes of silence, he begins to talk. Funny, it's the same gentle way I ease my husband's anxiety, too.
What beautiful witnessing your are offering your son (and husband.) It is a very basic human need to BE SEEN and BE HEARD at all ages. That's a great insight you offered; even if you can't "fix" the problem, he feels you are "on his side," and this begins to bridge the gap between hysteria and calm. With love, Jessica
I so needed this post a few weeks ago. My eight year old had a total breakdown the first day he received homework (his second week at school). It was an hour long tug of war with me making every suggestion, encouragement, & threat I could come up with. It was not until after the whole thing calmed down that I realized he had not eaten well that day, he had a very long weekend traveling, he was getting to know a new teacher. All the reasons you gave in your article. I too easily get caught up in the moment when my kids are out of control.
Thank you so much for writing. It is so understandable! It is so hard to see past the resistance that the children present us with sometimes and remember the context. It's not to let them off the hook...the homework can still get done, it's just leading with the empathy when we can access it within ourselves, to maybe soften and contain the experience, and after that support is cemented then perhaps the child can face what is expected of them with more empowerment. Sending love and compassion to you; we are all just doing our best and some days we have more patience than others, because of our personal list of contributing factors to our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual state of being! Yours, Jessica
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