Using the Magic Words

I’m not talking about “Please” or “Thank you”, I’m talking about “I understand”. When I am out in public, or over with friends and family and I see someone’s child start to throw a tantrum I feel that parent’s pain.

It comes out of nowhere. one minute your child is happily going about the day, and the next they are on the floor, kicking and screaming. It gets old fast, doesn’t it? Banging heads, stomping feet, streaming tears, and piercing wails…. Ugh, I get a headache just thinking about it. Today I have a few secrets to share with you. I have figured out how to subdue if not stop most temper tantrums in their tracks.

Because common solutions don’t work

I have scoured all the popular parenting websites, and read several books and articles, searching how to eliminate, circumvent or avoid the dreaded tantrum. My son is too young to understand what I mean when I say “No sir!” or “Don’t do that please”. So I have had to find alternative methods of helping to set him up for success and help me to avoid pulling my hair out…. (no I’m not bald btw). While time-outs are a popular method of discipline, removing the child from the situation or eliminating the temptation to do something has clear benefits, though it is not always feasible. Who wants to leave the dinner table to drag their screaming toddler to the time-out corner? The other solution is to talk it out. While talking with your child is critical to healthy mental development, trying to talk to your toddler is just about pointless. Not only can your child not reason the complexity of the details of why they can’t have said toy or beat up on their sibling, they don’t have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. And for us as parents it can often be a waste of time, energy and sanity. If your child isn’t capable of processing the emotions, how can they rationally discuss them? So while talking isn’t a bad idea, it just means we have to readjust how we approach our kids when they are emotionally charged.


Sometimes it’s okay for mommy or daddy to take a time out too. Often removing ourselves from the situation can help us to re-approach our children with a level head and a clear plan to “be the adult” in the situation.

The truth is, children need constant reassurance. The temper tantrum is often a reaction based on the belief that you (the parent) don’t actually understand how serious the situation is. It’s very BIG to them! And to an extent, they have a point. Why is everything SUCH A BIG DEAL? Because our child’s perception of the world is very small, so everything bad that happens means it’s the end of the world.

Toddlers haven’t developed the ability to have self-awareness or self-control to differentiate between big and small problems. Everything is a big deal. That is just how toddlers process things. So how can we use temper tantrums to relate to our kids, and help them to process their big feelings?

Using “I understand” when appropriate, can be very effective.

  1. Get down to their eye-level
  2. Make physical contact. (Gently place your hand on arm, back or leg.)
  3. Try to catch their eye, and say calmly, “I understand.” And mean it! Remember, they feel like their world is ending right now.
  4. Reinforce you understand why they’re upset. Example: “I understand you want to have a cookie, but it is time for dinner. We can have one together after dinner for desert.”
  5. Offer a choice, unrelated to the issue at hand. Example: “I could use some help to set the table. Could you be my little helper?” This step is intended to be used as a distraction.

They key to using the MAGIC WORDS “I understand” is empathy expressed through gentle action. I mean, how would you feel if someone turned the TV off during a marathon session of your favorite show? I know I would be pissed off. Now imagine not being able to understand the difference between “off” and “It’s gone forever”. Try and remember that feeling the next time a tantrum rears its ugly head.





Categories: Parenting

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