I watched him play as his eyes lit up like a bright star on a clear summer night. The toy reminded me so much of my own childhood. Again and again, he watched the penguins go up the stairs and down the slide.
It was one of those moments as a parent that you don’t want to end because in that moment your child feels a happiness that is pure and true. It is a happiness uncontaminated by the busyness and stress of everyday life. It is a happiness most adults would pay money for.
But I saw the writing on the wall: I was going to have a stop a temper tantrum over this penguin toy.
I was going to steal his happiness.
The toy didn’t belong to him. Our family stopped by a friend’s house for dinner after finishing up a photo session earlier that day, and despite all the magic, he was going to say goodbye to the toy in about 5 minutes. And in about 5 minutes, the magic would fade and the tears would follow.
The tip you need to stop a temper tantrum.
As the night was winding down, it was time to head home. My son was overtired, refused supper, and now I was taking away his magic. It was the perfect superstorm of triggers to bring on the mother of all meltdowns.
Me: It’s time to go. You can play with the penguin toy again when we come back to visit.
Me (calm and sweet): You’re mad. You want to play with the penguin toy all night long. I wish you could. But we need to leave and go back to our own home.
Son: (wails louder turning his face crimson).
Me (calm and sweet): I’m going to put your shoes on. We are going home. You don’t want to go home yet. You’re mad and that’s okay.
Son: (kicking, followed by screaming, followed by rolling on the floor.)
Clearly, I wasn’t making much progress.
So much of positive parenting tells you to empathize and reflect the emotions back to your child. To stay calm. To be kind and nice. And you should. But there is a whole other component that comes with empathy and validating emotions that is rarely talked about.
Imagine for a moment you are enraged about something horrible that happened. Hypothetically, let’s say you broke your leg right before a marathon, which you trained for 6 months and counting. Now you’re just plain angry. You’re telling this to a friend and she says in her best nicey-nice June Cleaver voice ever, “Oh my word. How awful. You can do it again someday.”
That’s the problem.
She’s not matching your intensity. Your voice is emitting stout force. And her voice is emitting gentle force. You don’t believe her. You don’t believe she really understands what you are saying.
What you really want her to do is furrow her eyebrows and hang her jaw wide open and say, “Oh my gosh! That is AWFUL! I’m so disappointed for you. You worked so HARD and now it feels like it’s all washed down the drain like it didn’t MEAN ANYTHING!”
I finally saw the difference.
When I got my son out to the car, he was raging and back arching. His temper tantrum was continuing to spiral deeper into a place of anger and fury. With one arm supporting his back and the other his legs, I scooped him up and set him into his car seat.
Then I added the component that was missing the whole time. The secret way to tame a tantrum.
I matched the intensity.
Me: (huffing and puffing, brows furrowed, lots of arm movements and head shaking) You’re MAD! You wanted to play with that penguin toy for LONGER and we took it AWAY! It’s AWFUL! You wish you could take that toy home. And now you’re just plain ANGRY!
His looked directly at me and our eyes gridlocked. In that moment he *knew* I understood exactly what he was trying to tell me for the past 10 minutes.
My son took a deep breath, faintly smiled and relaxed his back into the car seat.
Don’t let me confuse you.
Matching the intensity of your child’s emotions is great way to help them feel heard. To help them believe what you are saying. To help them know that you really “get it.”
But don’t let me confuse you because matching the intensity is about matching emotions and putting some oomph and feeling into your words. It is not about yelling or matching aggression.
The worst was over.
I flipped my hair out of my face, took a deep breath, fixed my dress, and got into the front seat of the car. There was silence and then my husband spoke:
Husband: Well that worked.
When your child is struggling with big emotions and everything seems to be going horribly wrong, match the intensity.
When your child is drowning in the overwhelm of their own emotions and you don’t know how to snap him out of it, match the intensity.
When your child continues to communicate and accelerate because he doesn’t feel heard, match the intensity.
And when your child discovers a penguin toy that brings the gift of true happiness and magic, enjoy it, relish in it, and prepare yourself for the wild, magical ride of emotions to come.
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