I’m lucky. My daughter is pretty mild mannered when it comes to being upset. She doesn’t really make a scene or fly off the rails. I’m eternally grateful for this, because I’ve seen other single dads in public, dealing with a kid that’s absolutely losing their mind. Laying on the floor screaming, unabashed talk-back, spiteful behavior—my heart goes out to those dads.

I’m sure my mild-mannered kid is luck of the draw, but I also think it’s because I always try and be empathetic towards her. She might be 5, but she’s a human being with emotions and feelings. If something is driving her towards laying on the floor and screaming at me, I think it’s probably a good idea to understand why. I’m sure she doesn’t want to throw down a tirade.

The art of empathy

One of the first things I learned when it comes to thwarting a temper tantrum is to ask my daughter how she’s feeling. Then, genuinely paying attention to her response. If she’s upset, I want her to explain to me why. And I let her know this! It goes a little something like this:

Me: “Hey Piper, are you okay? You seem upset.”
Her: “I am upset.”
Me: “I’m sorry to hear that! Can you tell me why you’re upset? How can I help?”

It’s a simple conversation that takes 30 seconds, but it lets her know I’m listening and that I care. Then, we talk about it. Her feelings are the topic of conversation, so she feels validated. And, if there’s anything I can do to help her feel less uncomfortable, it shows her that I truly do care about how she’s feeling.

If there’s nothing I can do or she’s being unreasonable, it’s my opportunity to teach her empathy. I can explain to her why things are the way they are, then offer encouragement about making the most out of the situation. All this happens without screaming, yelling or any sort of tantrum.

Empathizing without enabling

I’ve also learned not to enable. If you empathize by continually compromising, your kid isn’t going to learn anything—except that they can manipulate your empathy! Telling them they can clean their room tomorrow instead of today gives them power to keep putting it off. Teaching them why they have to clean their room and offering to help validates their feelings.

Don’t trivialize

Few 5-year-olds have real problems. They’re not bummed about bills being paid late or dealing with a bad work environment. Instead, their stress comes from not having their favorite outfit to wear or having to postpone a play date because of a sick friend. But, just because these aren’t real problems for us adults, doesn’t mean they’re trivial for our kids.

When I get my daughter to explain what’s bothering her, I make sure to never trivialize it. I treat her problems like they’re real, because to her, they are! It’s an exercise in problem solving and empathy that I hope she’ll take with her through life. When the time in her life comes to listen to someone else’s problems, she’ll be able to because someone took the time to listen to hers.

As a single dad, I’m convinced my biggest asset is my ability to empathize. I’m not saying my daughter and I don’t have disagreements, but when we do, they’re rarely the blowouts I’ve seen other dads begging to end in public!