One of the most important lessons I've learned as a parent (as a human, really) is to respond to other people with empathy instead of sympathy or problem-solving. "That must have been so hard." "Ugh, that feeling's the worst." "I'd feel that way, too." Just telling my son that I'm listening, that I understand how he feels, is so much better than jumping in to soothe or solve problems.
But no matter how active and empathetic a listener I try to be, there are times that test my sanity against his endurance. At those times, I've found the best way to empathize is to teach him to throw things. I've assembled my room-by-room guide to help you do the same.
If your child is tantrumming over your draconian bedtime policy, you're in luck, because kids' bedrooms are tailor-made for good tantrums. Encourage your child to throw pillows, blankets, and balled-up socks. If there's dirty laundry, you might even encourage him to throw it toward your laundry room. Just avoid throwing any stuffed animals upon whom your child has bestowed names and personalities.
This room is a little trickier because so many kitchen items are messy and/or dangerous. The only thing worse than a knife-wielding tantrumming preschooler is a raw egg-wielding one. But with a little creativity, you can guide the tantrum and teach new concepts. Hand over a few tissues to help him turn his anger into confetti. Just save one or two for tears.
Cheerios and mini marshmallows are easy to clean. Frozen peas are a little less so, but a colander on the floor can catch most of the mess. If your kid has good aim, fill the sink with water and let him throw ice cubes. Paper plates make good anger frisbees--first draw out your feelings and then throw the faces around the room.
Cotton balls and swabs make safe projectiles, but velcro rollers are the absolute best. They float in the tub, dry easily, and make only small splashes. Parents willing to let the floor get wet can offer sponges or washcloths. Your kid will get clean while splashing out his feelings.
Craft room/Home office
If your kid's tantrumming in your craft space, you've hit the jackpot, because you can make all sorts of things to throw. Paper airplanes, balloons, and paper punch confetti are all easy to make and very satisfying when sent off a balcony or down the stairs.
Most craft supplies, like feathers and foam stickers, are great for tossing and easy to clean up. Pom poms can be lobbed anywhere, but are especially fun when hurled at impromptu washi tape webs.
If your house is full of floor-to-ceiling windows you might be reluctant to support throwing tantrums. There are plenty of safe-for-windows items throughout the house, but the best are those that will surprise and delight when they stick to the windows. Suction cup balls and sticky hands are two great options.
When outdoors, throwing tantrums are easy in any season: kids can throw grass clippings, leaves, snow, and water balloons, as well as most outdoor toys. Kids who are alone can throw sand and dirt, and if you're lucky all that digging and throwing will tire them out.
The time when throwing tantrums will be hardest is when you're out of the house. In the car, thrown items can quickly become dangerous projectiles. In the excellent How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Faber and Mazlish offer a great mid-meltdown strategy: grant your child his wishes in fantasy. He can't throw his iPad at you while you're driving, but you can talk about the crazy story that might happen if he did. You can't let your child sweep all the canned goods off the grocery shelf, but you can talk about what would happen if green beans went rolling down the aisle.
In these cases, avoid admonishing your kid about the people or property that would be hurt--you're not trying to teach morality in this heated moment, you're trying to teach your child to identify and confront his or her emotions. As Faber and Mazlish put it, "Sometimes just having someone understand how much you want something makes reality easier to bear."