How I Stopped my Toddler’s Tantrum in Its Tracks

Little kids can often have big scary feelings – and I think it’s from that young age that we’re taught to censor our feelings.

Little boys are particularly singled out for that – they’re supposed to be “tough,” the world tells them.

I am raising my son to champion his feelings and the feelings of others, to care for others’ hearts and his own. If more people were raised with these priorities, I think the world would be a happier place.

What would happen if we all welcomed and felt our feelings, instead of trying to shove them down and away?

I think that’s not only an important key to being stronger, more resilient people, but also to helping toddlers deal with tantrums.

While out shopping yesterday at Costco with my 2 year old son Lucas in the cart (his preferred spot), an unhappy little boy caught our attention. He looked the same age as Lucas. We watched as he cried, arching his back, trying to wiggle out and screaming, “Nooooo! Oooooout!” He was in tears, obviously very frustrated that he was stuck in a place he didn’t want to be.

I felt sympathy for his mother – no one wants to be the person whose child is having a public meltdown! – but as they walked past us and I heard his mother say “I don’t care,” I felt more sympathy for the boy.

Her words were harsh. Given, I didn’t know what had come before that. She might have been at the end of her rope, fighting his tantrum for 10 minutes while simply trying to get home with the week’s groceries. It’s not my place to judge, and I’m sure she was doing her best at the moment.

But then Lucas looked to me for direction. “Boy sad,” he told me.

“Yes,” I told him. But I wanted to say more than that. I wanted to tell him that it was ok, that the boy wasn’t wrong for feeling sad, and that his feelings were just as valid as his mother’s frustration.

So I pulled my cart to the side of the aisle, and had a gentle heart-to-heart with my son.

“You saw that the boy was sad. He wanted to get out of the cart, but he couldn’t get out. His Mama didn’t have a hand to hold him or carry him.”

“Yeah.” He looked into my eyes, unsettled and searching out the truth.

“It made me sad the way his Mama spoke to him. She told him ‘I don’t care.’ But his feelings are ok. It’s ok to feel sad. That’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s important to let ourselves feel sad. That can be an important thing to feel. You feel sad sometimes too, huh?”


“I wish she had told him that it’s ok to feel sad. And that she understands that he wants to get out of the cart right now. It’s ok that she can’t give that to him. But I wish she had told him ‘It’s ok to be sad.'”

It felt important that I validated the boy’s feelings to my son, even if the boy himself couldn’t have that validation.

Later, on our way through the store, we came across a collection of Lucas’s favorite things: fire trucks, police cars, garbage trucks, and other things that go. He smiled hugely, squealed, and demanded, “Out pease!”

We were in no hurry, so I lifted him out of the cart to see the trucks. 5 minutes later, he didn’t want to get back in the cart, and it was time to get moving, so I picked him up.

“Nooooooo! Mo’ t’uks!” He twisted and writhed in my arms, trying to get back down to the toys.

“I know. You like the trucks, don’t you? It’s pretty cool to look at them up close, huh, baby? We have to go now, so wave bye bye trucks.”

“Nooooooo! Doooooown!” Cue the tears. I could tell we would have a full-blown tantrum in seconds. Deep breath.

I knew he needed his feelings to be recognized. And that’s when I turned our earlier encounter into a lesson.

“Do you remember the boy we saw who was crying?”

He was jerked suddenly out of his own frenzy, and really looked at me, tears in his eyes. “Yeah.”

“I’m going to tell you what I wish that boy’s mama had told him. It’s ok to be sad, Lucas. I know you want to stay and look at these trucks. I’m glad we had time to look at them. But we have to go now. We have to leave them here, and it’s ok to be sad about that. I want you to feel your feelings. And sad is an ok thing to feel. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.” He sniffled just a little now, the threatening tantrum averted.

I swooped him up into the cart, and we went on our way.

I’ve always encouraged Lucas’s feelings, and even empathized with his tears – but I didn’t expect the full-blown tantrum that was brewing to blow over before it even began.

There were two keys to the process: first, validating his feelings, both giving them a name and accepting them, and second, jogging his memory – engaging him in a distraction that brought him out of himself briefly enough that he kept his feelings, but they lost their tantrum-strength pull over him.

It’s helpful for all of us to feel our feelings more. So often in working with weight loss clients, they’ll reach for food when they’re not hungry simply to distract from the unpleasantness of whatever emotion they’re trying to avoid – stress, anger, loneliness, and so on.

I think it’s a cultural problem that we’re not “allowed” to feel into our emotions. Not only are little boys supposed to be “tough,” but adults are supposed to be “strong.” Women are encouraged to be small, uncomplicated, and not take up much space – physically or emotionally.


Adults Have Feelings, Too

Later that same day, I had my own run-in with feelings being unwelcome, and ultimately censored. I’m a member of a Facebook fermentation group, and it’s heavily monitored. (Fermentation is my latest experiment at home – stay tuned for future blog posts!) I asked a question – what to do with extra kale in my garden? Ferment it? Can it? Preserving food is a new endeavor, and I was looking for someone with more expertise than I.

My post was approved, but the second comment was a notification from an administrator saying that non-fermentation related posts had been removed.

This really frustrated me. I understood their rules in sticking strictly to the topic, but I felt as if my communication and education was being censored. Trying to connect with the expertise I was seeking, I asked anyone with non-fermentation related input to please message me privately. I also honestly and respectfully expressed my frustration that open communication wasn’t allowed in the group.

And minutes later, my whole post was deleted. They were censoring not just people’s communication about fermentation (and nothing else, goodness forbid), but also feelings. My emotions were deemed inappropriate, and rather than remove the comment they removed the whole post – a slap in the face for expressing myself.

And so the problem is perpetuated. People who speak their truth are looked down on, shamed, and censored. Sure, there are times and places for full honesty, and there are ways to express one’s truths without being hurtful to other people – other important topics to teach my son.

I say this – I dare to express myself. I WILL express myself. My joy, my ecstasy, my anger, my frustration – all of it. I will not hide or shame myself for it. It’s part of loving myself, of being my true self, of not holding up a mask and pretending all is right with the world when it’s not. And I plan to teach my son the same thing.

But if the world can’t handle us without censoring ourselves, that’s the world’s problem. I refuse to live in denial of my feelings.

How do you teach your children about these important topics? Have you seen feelings being censored or shamed? Share below.



  1. Ruth Polivka

    Nicole, thank you for sharing this insightful information. I think the key here is patience and personal insight. I wish I had more of these when I was raising my children 25 years ago. I am sharing the information with my daughter in law who has a 4 month old baby boy.

    • Thank you for sharing the post with your daughter, Ruth! Congrats on your new grandson. 🙂 <3

      Yes, patience is so, so important - and after a long day, it can be hard for Mom and Dad too!

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