Think of a time recently when your child was upset, maybe really upset. What he was upset about wasn’t a major life loss, or a safety issue. Rather, he was just very displeased about something, for example, he wanted the green one instead of the yellow one. Or he was really excited about going to the museum but you just found out that it’s closed. Or you promised to bring him something from your trip but you sadly forgot. Really, the situations that can cause upset are limitless—the key component is that your child is upset, and you’ve tried and been unsuccessful at talking things through. You may or may not care deeply about your child’s complaint, but you definitely care about them, and you have tried to help them calm down, but your reason, logic, reassurance, perspective or compromise offerings haven’t been successful. So what’s left?
60-40-0. Use this equation as a guide for how you are going to interact for the next few minutes. (*) Take a deep breath (always a good idea in most any parenting situation) and begin to nonverbally send a message that 60% of your energy is compassion. Allow your body to slump a little. Put a compassionate expression on your face. Mine includes knitting my eyebrows together and poking my lips out a little with a slight downturn—but you do what’s normal for you. It’s generally better not to speak, but if you must, make little noncommittal mmm-mmms and the like. I often find that I tip my head to one side and nod as well. Spend a moment channeling compassion towards your child for the emotions that they are feeling.
After the first few seconds of channeling compassion, make sure that your non-verbal communication demonstrates that 40% of your energy is… bored. Yes, bored. You’re mostly compassionate, but really, you are also pretty bored with this tantrum, these behaviors, this fit… the Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka meme above isn’t quite perfect, but hopefully you get the drift. Your level of interest in the fit starts to decrease steadily. To be clear, don’t express snark, provocation, or teasing, as those will totally backfire. Just… don’t be super interested.
And the last bit of your energy—precisely 0%, is “not getting sucked in.” Your child is having this tantrum. It’s his. The feelings that provoked the tantrum? Also his. You have tried to help him, but he wasn’t ready or able to accept the help. So… your job is to be compassionately present, while not letting his feelings nor his management of those feelings trigger you to react with your own emotions. (**)
* If the tantrums are not measured in minutes, please consider individualized advice from a professional—an article isn’t enough support.
** It’s okay to move in and out of “presence,” too, for example after a couple of minutes you might say “I can tell you are really feeling upset about this. I’m sorry it’s so hard. I’m going to step out of here for a minute but will come back to check on you shortly.”