Time and again, I see and hear advice to ignore children who are in emotional distress. Those who both give and receive this advice do so with the best of intentions. They love children and believe it is in a child’s best interest to “train them out of tantrums” by ignoring because they believe that anything else will reinforce or fuel this “bad behavior.”
There are several things at play here that we need to address in order to bring compassion to our responses with our children.
1. We have subscribed to the idea that tantrums are bad behavior.We believe children have tantrums in a calculative manner with the intent to manipulate us to either give them attention or give them something they want. When we understand how the developing brain of a child works, we can quickly debunk this idea that young children (babies and toddlers) are being deliberately manipulative.
Rather, true tantrums occur when the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain) becomes overloaded and alarms trigger the lower brain, sending them into a meltdown. When the lower brain is in charge, children have little control over their actions, and screaming, kicking, and crying are a discharge of the overwhelming feelings.
Many things can overload the limbic system and trigger the lower brain, and to us, those things may seem very insignificant—silly even—and so our initial response is often dismissive. Who really gets that upset over the way a sandwich is cut? This judgment blocks our compassion because when we trivialize the emotional experience of another, we feel validated in not offering our support.
2. Tantrums make us uncomfortable.There’s another reason we want to ignore a tantrum and that is the emotional response it invokes in our own brains. Because we humans are so interconnected, our mirror neurons are firing when we see our child in distress and it causes us to feel like we are in distress, too.
We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we push the cause of our discomfort (the child) away. Ignoring is basically like constructing a mental wall that doesn’t allow their pain to become our pain, and here again, trivializing their experience comes in handy because we use that “logic” (thanks to our fully developed frontal lobes) to ease our own discomfort.
3. We are afraid that compassion will reward the tantrum.Connection is one of our most basic human needs. We all long to feel heard, validated, loved, accepted and attached, not only when we are our best selves, but also when we are our worst selves. Imagine a spouse, partner, or friend withdrawing their attention and warmth from you because you are crying, upset and in emotional distress.
What would it do for your relationship? How would it affect your emotional state? Now imagine that these people gave you a shoulder to cry on, listened as you communicated your frustration or sadness, and then, even if they couldn’t solve your problem for you, they said “I’m here for you.” Now ask yourself those same two questions.
Compassion is not a reward—it is the heart of relationships.Psychologist, science writer, and emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman says, “True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” To extend compassion, we have to be willing to allow ourselves to feel our own discomfort and yet have the emotional stability to not become entangled in their distress but to be the lighthouse that shows them the way through the storm.
Different Kinds of Tantrums:Thus far, I’ve been talking about the true emotional overwhelm, or what Tina Payne-Bryson calls “downstairs tantrums.” Read Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums for a complete explanation.
Sometimes, particularly in older children beyond the preschooler years, a child will “pitch a fit” in an attempt to get you to give in. Hey, the frontal lobe is maturing! This isn’t true emotional distress, and parents can tell the difference. Even during this type of tantrum, though, you can still show compassion while standing your ground. When he realizes the fit doesn’t get him what he wants, it won’t be a tool he uses, and when you stay compassionate and calm in the face of it, he’ll learn what it looks like to show maturity.
The Bottom Line:We don’t have to make a new sandwich and cut it the right way, buy them the toy, or let them stay up an hour later nor do we have to send them to their room or ignore them completely. Neither approach is the best for fostering emotional health.
Instead, I believe in offering compassionate, loving support while holding our boundaries and then, once the storm has passed, actively teaching children about their emotions and how they can respond when they feel upset. This approach strengthens relationships, resilience, and emotional intelligence.
Children must learn that kicking and screaming on the floor is not the way to deal with upsets, but they don’t learn how to handle those emotions by kicking and screaming alone. They learn by watching how we handle our upsets and by what we teach them before and after an emotional meltdown.
So don’t ignore! Help.
**This post was originally published at Creative Child Magazine.