The Role of Empathy: How to Get the Behavior You Want From Your Toddler, Part 3

Originally published March 12, 2015 on Big City Moms.

I stopped into a toy store on the Upper West Side a few weeks ago to pick up a gift for one of my nephews (and somehow resist the temptation to purchase more adorable things for my own little guy – always a challenge!). While I was there, I observed the following (approximate) conversation between a mother and her toddler son, David, who looked to be three years old or so:

David: “Mommy, I want a toy. Can I get a toy?”

Mommy: “No, Honey. We’re here to get a birthday present for Sammy.”

David: “But I want one!”

Mommy: “Honey, it’s not your birthday; it’s Sammy’s birthday.”

David (louder and more upset): “Please???”

Mommy: “David, stop. I said no.”


Mommy: “David, are we going to have to go home?”

David: starts crying.

Mommy: “David, why are you crying? You have so many toys at home! You just got so many new ones for Hannukah. Come on, now. Stop crying, and act like a big boy.”

I’m not sure where the conversation went from here – I paid and left – but I imagine it didn’t end well. Both Mom and David were becoming more and more frustrated and upset; I’d put my money on a full-blown tantrum.

Sound familiar? Take a number.

So, what went wrong? How might you, as a parent, de-escalate a situation like this, rather than – however unintentionally – making it worse? Here are a few ideas:

Put yourself in your child’s shoes.

Going to a toy store and not being able to buy a toy is hard – really, really hard. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat dessert bar with friends and being told that you alone can look, but not eat. Or a spa where everyone else is getting treatments, and you’re only allowed to walk around and think about how good a massage would feel. If you recognize this, you can act accordingly. You might say to your child, even before entering the store, something like, “We’re going to the toy store to pick out a birthday present for Sammy. We’re not going to be able to get you a toy today, and that might be really tough. But I’m on your team, buddy, and I’ll be right next to you to help out if you get frustrated.”

Imagine if someone – say, a fairy godmother type (after all, that’s kind of what you are to your toddler) – said something similar to you, in the dessert scenario: “Hey, so you’re not going to be able to eat any of the delicious desserts you see, and that’s going to stink. But I get it; I’m here for you, and you can lean on me for support.” Kind of changes things, right? It’s because you have an ally. Your child is heading into a challenging situation, but he knows that you are in his corner. This knowledge alone will be calming to him, and set him up for success.

Ditch the logic, and focus on emotion.

For this one, picture yourself at work. You have to attend a destination wedding, and so you ask your boss if you can take off the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Your boss responds, “Absolutely not. We have a very important meeting scheduled for that day.” You plead with your boss, but she just expounds upon the explanation she’s already offered, highlighting why the meeting is so important, and the extent to which your presence is critical. You become more and more frustrated and continue to press your point, to no avail.

But what if she responded to your request a little more empathically? What if her facial expression mirrored your disappointment, and she added, kindly and compassionately, how sorry she was that the answer was no. Furthermore, what if she helped you to problem solve, to figure out some way to get to the wedding as soon as possible following the meeting? Are you still frustrated that you can’t take Friday off? Yes. So what’s different? You feel heard and you feel understood. The original frustration remains, but there’s no added frustration of feeling unheard and alone, so it’s easier for you to take a deep breath and calm down.

Back to David at the toy store. He doesn’t care that it’s Sammy’s birthday and not his own. He’s not even really sure what birthdays are, frankly, and he certainly doesn’t know or understand when they happen, or why. I’ve heard children in this kind of situation ask, “But why isn’t it my birthday?” Or even declare, “Well, then, let’s make it my birthday!” From their perspective, these responses make perfect sense, which is why you can’t really reason with a toddler. Rather, what if David’s mother had said something like, “I know, David; I can see you’re super frustrated. You really, really want a toy and it’s just such a bummer that I have to say no.” Chances are much greater that David might have been able to self-regulate (i.e., calm down) more effectively (there is actually evidence that these moments of emotional attunement assist in slowing down biologically driven stress responses).

Have I lost some of you? Are you rolling your eyes, feeling like there’s no way this actually works, or that responding in such a way doesn’t feel tough enough somehow? Please understand this: empathizing with your child’s emotions does not mean you have to give in to your child’s request. Parents often think they have just two choices – they can either be sympathetic to their child’s feelings OR they can maintain the limits they’ve set. The fact is, though, that you can do both. Moreover, you’re a lot more likely to get the results you want if you do – maybe not on your first go of it, but certainly over time.

Avoid rhetorical questions.

Although we, as grown-ups, take them for granted, rhetorical questions are a sophisticated form of communication – they assume a nuanced understanding of language that toddlers just don’t have. So it makes perfect sense that David only became even more upset when his mother asked him if they were going to have to go home – he truly had no idea how to respond. Similarly, asking David why he was crying didn’t get his mother anywhere; she already knew the answer, as David had communicated it quite clearly – he was crying because he wanted a toy and she was not going to get him one. Asking David why he is crying in this scenario is the same as telling him not to cry, or that there is no reason to cry. And if anyone’s ever tried that with you, you know it doesn’t feel good and only tends to amplify your distress. A potentially more effective approach? “I see you’re crying, David. I know you’re upset.” Again, just because you say this does not mean that you then have to give in and get David a toy.

Remove the following two explanations from your repertoire, once and for all.

“You have so many toys at home.” Why won’t this work? Because if your toddler were more eloquent, she’d respond: “So what, we’re not at home right now, and I want a toy right now. Why are you bringing up this completely irrelevant what-I-have-at-home nonsense?”

“You just got so many new toys for [insert occasion here].” Again, refer to your toddler’s likely internal thought process: “Right you are! And it was awesome, which is why I want more.”

Allow your child to act his or her age.

In other words, don’t tell your toddler to act like a big boy or a big girl. Why? Because, for the purpose of this discussion, they’re not – they’re little. Which means they’re only just learning the coping skills they’ll need to tolerate life’s frustrations. From a developmental perspective, this is exactly where toddlers are supposed to be. It’s a parent’s job to teach their children these skills, not to criticize them for not having them already.

So was the mother in the toy store a terrible mother?

Of course not. Will David be damaged for life? No way. Is it realistic to expect that a parent can respond to every impending or full-fledged meltdown with empathy and compassion? Not a chance. But making a conscious effort to begin using this approach – little by little – can be hugely rewarding. Not only will your own life become just a little bit easier (and who doesn’t want that?), but also your toddler will feel like his mom hears and understands him when he’s upset. And there is a ton of research – decades and decades across multiple cultures – showing that parents’ ability to connect with (and, thus, soothe) their toddlers when they’re in distress leads to a host of positive outcomes for kids across social, emotional, psychological, and cognitive realms.

In my fantasy, after David had a full-blown tantrum, his mother took him home, and, when they had both calmed down, spent some time playing with him on the floor. I’d like to think she said something like, “David, I know you got really upset in the toy store when I wouldn’t let you buy a toy, and I’m sorry that I got so frustrated with you. I was tired and sometimes I lose my patience when I’m tired.” Because it’s always OK to apologize, and it turns out that the experience of “rupture and repair” is critical to healthy parent-child relationships.

And then after David went to bed? I hope Mom treated herself to her favorite dessert – all she wanted. Because: yum.

Photo credit: Luiginter