10/13/2014 03:25 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014

How to Escalate Tears into a Tantrum

Jill Tindall via Getty Images

"I want to wear the Mickey Mouse pajamas!" our toddler announced. My husband fished out the top, but the Mickey Mouse bottoms were in hiding.

"Look, here are your shark pajamas!" my husband tried, cheerfully.

"I want to wear the Mickey Mouse pajamas!" our toddler repeated, whining.

"The shark pajamas are from your good friend," my husband said, pleading.

"No, the Mickey Mouse pajamas!" our toddler said, bursting into tears.

"Oh, it's OK," my husband admonished. "Let's put on the shark pajamas."

"I don't want the shark pajamas! I want the Mickey Mouse pajamas," our toddler burbled through intensifying tears.

"I'll read you two stories," my husband bribed.

"Mickey Mouse pajamas!!" our toddler screeched/sobbed.

I was in the other bedroom, listening to this escalate, when my husband found his solution.

"OK, here are your Mickey Mouse bottoms," he said, pulling them off the bathroom floor and perhaps intentionally not smelling them while putting them on her. Satisfied, she climbed into her bed.

He came into the room where I was, laughing. "It's hard not to laugh at this stuff," he said. (I love him for not taking it all too seriously.)

"I think we need to do the whole emotion-first thing," I said. "Saying 'Oh, it's OK,' or trying to distract her is basically saying, 'You shouldn't feel that way.'"

"Well, she shouldn't! They're just pajamas," he said.

"I know," I said, "but that's just how it goes."

Kids have intense emotions over random, seemingly ridiculous things. This is one of the concepts that lodged itself in my head after editing Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. Kids can get incredibly upset (or incredibly joyful) over wearing socks, a tiny dog passing by, the color of a cup, whether you hand a peeled orange to them whole or make the dire mistake of starting to break it into segments. You can't control that, and, at this age, neither can they. Medina defines the neuroscience of an "emotion" as the brain simply tagging an event as very important.

What can you do with that? Simply acknowledge it.

Imagine you were sobbing over something, and your partner's first response was, "Oh, stop crying." Or "Hey, look, here's a happy thing over here!" Or "I'll give you something to cry about." Or "Oh c'mon, it's not important." You might protest, feel unjustly shut down, repeat yourself, get increasingly agitated. The same goes for your kid. Even if your partner can't solve your problem, you need to feel heard and understood. And when you feel that empathy, your body (the vagus nerve, specifically) calms down.

The same goes for kids.

What does it sound like to "do the whole empathy-first thing" with a child? I talk more about how (and why) in Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I've Learned So Far). Here's one example:

"You're feeling sad. You wanted to wear your Mickey Mouse pajamas. I wish you could wear them, too. They're nice and soft. But they're dirty right now, so we need to put them in the wash. You can wear these other soft pajamas tonight." If needed, continue acknowledging the emotion and empathizing: "I know you're feeling soo sad about this. It's OK to feel sad. Sometimes I feel sad, too, when I don't get something I want. Would you like a hug? OK, sweetie. You can wear your Mickey Mouse pajamas another time for sure. Tonight we'll wear these."

That's what we said the next night -- after I smelled those pajama bottoms.

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