How Empathy Helps When Your Child Acts Out

How Empathy Helps When Your Child Acts Out

 Parenting Your Child through Big Emotions Can be Challenging.

“You’re disappointed with my decision,” you say empathetically.

“Yeah! It’s not fair! Everyone else gets to go…except me!” your child yells back.

You extend your arms as a peace offering, attempting to connect through this difficult situation.

Glaring at you, yelling, “This is the worst day ever!” your child slams the bedroom door.

That’s it. That’s the last straw.

You’ve tried being empathetic, you’ve tried offering comfort, and your child is still upset. And acting out! 

What do you do now?

Understanding the Storm

Feelings are complex.

Sometimes, your child may feel such a surge of relief when you offer empathy, that they gush with tears, and the feeling passes relatively quickly. Like a small wave lapping on the beach.

Sometimes, when you offer empathy, your child feels the floodgates open, and the big feelings come rushing over them like a tidal wave. They feel like they are drowning, unsure how to get back to safety…a feeling of calm.

It’s normal to want your child’s tantrum to stop, to want their whining to end immediately, the conflict to end. And, it’s normal to feel a variety of emotions when that doesn’t happen.

Parent Educator Ariadne Brill says, “For some parents, seeing their child frustrated brings up feelings of guilt, defeat, protection, sadness…”The trouble comes when these feelings create a disconnect between you and your child. You become more focused on stopping the unwanted behavior than providing your child with comfort and security through their big feelings.

In other words…instead of being the safe harbor in the storm, you jump into the waves with them!

 Here are some tips for riding out the storm and parenting through your child’s big emotions:

child acting out empathy helps

Think About Your Thoughts: If you notice a shift in your emotions — from empathetic and supportive to guilty or frustrated — simply acknowledge this about yourself. What thoughts are going through your head at this moment? Become curious about these thoughts and feelings. Here are some examples:

  • “This is really inconvenient for me.”
  • “No one respects me, not even my toddler.”
  • “I have no idea what to do right now.”
  • “I’m worried that I’m losing you.”

Create a Mantra: If negative thoughts are flooding your brain, combat them with positive, encouraging, grounding phrases. You may want to rewrite one of your negative thoughts, or simply repeat a mantra, such as “This is not an emergency.” Or, “I am calm.” Or, “Feelings come and feelings go.”

Do Simple Self-Care: When these feelings are surging through you, see it as a sign to step back and re-focus. Take a few deep breaths, get a drink of water or a breath of fresh air. Worry less about calming your child’s big feelings, and more about getting your own feelings back to calm.

When In Doubt, Use Empathy: How would you feel if you were in this situation?

Would you want someone to yell, “Calm down!” or would you rather hear, “Yeah, this is really tough.”

You may not agree with your child’s response, but you may be able to understand why it is challenging for them in this moment.

Check The Reserve: Your child’s ability to handle big feelings can be affected by lack of sleep, hunger, stress, over stimulation, or feeling disconnected. Plus, it may affect your ability to stay calm in the heat of the moment too! Sometimes getting a snack to fuel back up is the best solution.

Teach Later: It’s tempting to address things like door slamming and throwing toys in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, this usually escalates the situation even further. 

With the slammed door between you and your child, take a minute to regroup. Strive to use the break from the intense emotions to get a drink of water and take a few deep breaths.

After a few minutes, try knocking on the door, or joining your child where they are…

“Honey, can I come in?” 

“Let’s have a chat. I’d like to help you.”

“I’m on your side you know, even if it may not feel like that right now. I do care about you very much.”

You don’t know what will happen next, but if you believe you will make it through this storm together, you will. And the next storm too. 


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Nicole is a mom to 3 young girls, a Parent Coach, and Licensed Therapist in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the author of *Positive Parenting for Imperfect Families*. Nicole helps parents connect with their children, feel confident in their parenting, and find positive alternatives to punishment. Learn about online Parent Coaching and read parenting tips on her blog, ImperfectFamilies. Sign up for Nicole's newsletter here.

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