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The Science Behind Your Child’s Tantrums

Hannah Pomfret

Oct 30, 2023

All is calm, and suddenly, you hear yelling behind you. You turn your head to see your child, red-faced and screaming. It seems like it happened out of nowhere. You run a mental checklist: Hungry? No. Hurt? They are throwing things, but there are no cuts or scrapes. Tired? Yes, at least for their parent. The sound is piercing, and you feel caught, unsure of what to do next. There is nothing to suggest what made them initially upset. Sighing in frustration, you grit your teeth and mutter as empathetically as you can, “Let’s go.” You scoop up your screaming child while scrambling to get out the door. You feel like crying yourself, exhausted and perplexed about the outburst. It makes sense that you are frustrated. You want to help but don’t know how. Sound familiar?

These tantrums are a ubiquitous experience for both children and their parents. Not knowing how to cope, these temper tantrums occur when kids have “big emotions.” Tantrums or meltdowns in kids are often associated with crying, yelling, kicking, screaming, hitting, and other behaviors. While often associated with temper tantrums with toddlers, there can be some reasons that children may have tantrums beyond the average preschool years.

Underlying mental issues of tantrums

According to the Child Mind Institute, kids can experience them at any age for various reasons. The triggers for these outbursts are often related to emotions like anger, frustration, and overwhelm. Our goal is not to stop the feelings; we are not trying to squash or control them. We are trying to help them cope. There are plenty of reasons that can cause a defiant three-year-old, so it’s important to understand what is happening at the root of your child’s experience.

Kids diagnosed with ADHD may experience such outbursts and meltdowns since they often experience challenges with emotional regulation, impulse control, and lower tolerance for boredom. Autistic children often have difficulty adjusting to unexpected changes in plans or feeling overloaded by external stimuli, which can manifest as meltdowns. Young people with sensory processing issues can have meltdowns or feel similarly overwhelmed by their environment due to sensory overload. Irritability is common in children with depression, resulting in angry outbursts and meltdowns. Even extreme anxiety can underlie tantrums in toddlers/children.

Understanding the science behind your childs tantrums

While children may not be able to explain the why behind their behaviors, it can be helpful for caregivers to understand what is happening on a cognitive level during a temper tantrum. The hand-brain model, developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, provides a model of understanding how the stress response works within brains.

There are three key parts of the brain involved in a tantrum:

  1. The amygdala
  2. The hippocampus
  3. and the pre-frontal cortex

In the hand-brain model, the closed fist models an emotionally regulated brain. To represent the amygdala, which helps us to process emotions, fold your thumb across your open palm. The palm symbolizes the part of the brain that allows us to store memory, the hippocampus. It can help us to decide what to do based on past experiences or what we have learned. The front of your fingers in a closed fist represents the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps you think before you act. The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for emotional regulation. It does not is not fully developed in the brains of children. Research on brain development has shown it does not fully mature until adulthood. The pre-frontal cortexes within our brains continue to develop until age 26. Therefore, even in a regulated state, there are already limitations to your child’s capacity for self-control.

The issue with self-control

Our stress response functions to protect us from danger. When there is a perceived threat, the amygdala sends messages to our nervous system and releases adrenaline that causes our fight, flight or freeze response to begin. While there might not be a real danger, our brain cannot discern the difference between the physiological response to a lion running towards us versus the anxiety of the first day of school or frustration during a test.

Upon receiving this signal, there is a disconnect between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex during this stress response. Imagining it through the hand-brain model, it is almost as if you open your hand and “flip your lid.” This happens to your brain when you are experiencing road rage, and the same is true for when your child is having a temper tantrum – or “flipping their lid.” The emotion takes over.

Understanding the child’s brain

While somewhat simplistic, this model is a powerful tool for children and parents alike to understand that a child’s temper tantrum is not necessarily a conscious effort to be “difficult.” Instead, it demonstrates the significance of adults compassionately addressing a child’s temper tantrum. The role of the adult is to co-regulate and establish a sense of safety for the child to help them cope with overwhelming emotions.

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What to expect during a child’s tantrum and how to handle it

So what can we expect from children? Even within an emotionally regulated state, remember that the child’s capacity for self-control is limited. That is especially true in a meltdown. Sometimes, we must remind ourselves of Dr. Ross Greene’s words: “Kids do well if they can.”

While it can be difficult not to take an outburst personally, the child’s behavior signals the need to develop their abilities to identify and regulate their emotions. Just like reading and writing, children need to learn social-emotional skills to help them a) identify their emotions, b) self-soothe and utilize coping skills to regulate themselves, and c) express their needs in a way that helps them meet their needs. When you think about it, it is a highly complex skill set! It is a lot to deal with for a child. As adults, we usually have honed these skills, but the following can be a helpful exercise in empathy.

The worst thing to do during a tantrum

Think back to the last time a well-meaning person said, “Just calm down.” You (likely) were incredibly upset at that! What do they mean, “Calm down?!” It is the same for a child. What is the worst thing parents can do during a temper tantrum? Try to reason with your child or engage in problem-solving. They can’t hear or understand you in an escalated moment when their “lid is flipped.”

What to do instead

Instead, you can reduce the number of words you use and try to breathe or be there in that moment with them. For many parents, setting aside their emotions during meltdowns or tantrums can be difficult.

Monitor your facial expressions. Neuroception is when the brainstem tries to detect safety or danger from the child’s environment, body, memories, or mindset. We have to model being calm. Our nonverbal communication teaches kids how to regulate strong emotions even without words.

Having an even tone is crucial because it helps them to feel a sense of safety. According to polyvagal theory, a child’s nervous system can become overactivated. Their nervous system returns to safety through resonance and mirroring. In simple terms, co-regulation provides the strongest safety cue to de-escalate your child.

By that simple act, you are not only teaching them how to breathe and trust that this challenging moment will pass. You also send a powerful message: “Your feelings are not too much for me. I love you unconditionally, not depending on your mood. I am here to keep you safe, even in tough times.” Validation does not mean agreement; it is simply holding space to understand your child’s feelings and perspective. Allowing and accepting their emotions does not mean that we permit destructive behavior. It is crucial to their development to feel safe in expressing their feelings. You can say, “I hear you don’t want to do this, or “I can see that you feel _____.”

Observing triggers as prevention

While prevention is not always possible, observing triggers is one way to help yourself and your child. Any parent can tell you that there are times when some behaviors seem to come out of “nowhere.” Children are logical; while you might not know the reason, there is usually a reason for doing things this way. Usually, over time, a pattern emerges.

For instance, some children have tantrums during times of transition, like lining up at the classroom door or leaving the house. Noticing this pattern can help us reframe what we observe – defiance – as perhaps anxiety related to transitions. Additionally, understanding this behavior gives essential insight into the child’s inner world and helps us to see what they might need.

Are tantrums or meltdowns bad?

Behavior is communication. Parents can feel frustrated with their children; they often think, “That is not how I raised you!” However, this is a natural component of their development. This type of behavior – crying – was the only way your child could communicate their emotions and needs at birth.

When we label a child for their behavior, we are harming the child’s sense of self. They can internalize, “I am the bad kid.” There is no such thing. Instead, behavioral choices can help or hinder us from meeting our needs. Behavior can depend on environmental factors.

For example, when we say “Please” during a request, our request is usually met and accompanied by praise. When we choose to hit, we are often scolded or even punished. We may receive negative social feedback. Even within that perceived “negative” behavior, punishment can unintentionally reinforce it. For instance, if a child yells to gain a parent’s attention and the parent or adult responds by yelling back, their need is still met. They are still getting attention for their behaviors (albeit negative) and being reinforced by their environment.

Punishment is often the tool that parents use in addressing tantrums because that is the way that they were raised and taught. We can only do better when we know better. However, research shows that punitive approaches to tantrums are ineffective because that is not teaching the child the skillset to soothe themselves. Unintentionally, it can lead to more resentment and anger over time, increasing the frequency of tantrums and outbursts. It can heighten their anxiety and even negatively impact their development.

Dealing with overwhelming emotions

One criticism of the rising trend of “respectful parenting” is the misconception that there are no consequences. Parenting means using rules to reinforce what we teach the child. Setting limits conveys the message: “I care about you, and it is my job to keep you safe.”

So, how should parents intervene? Firstly, it is essential to regulate your emotions. A regular part of being a parent is hearing a child’s cries and feeling like your “lid” may also want to flip. Pause. Give yourself a moment. It is hard to deal with overwhelming emotions. When you are regulated, remember to ACT:

  • Acknowledge the feeling: Help them feel seen by stating, “I hear you feel _____” or “I see you feel ______.”
  • Communicate the limit: Name the rule by saying, “You are allowed to feel this way and _______(name what needs to happen).
  • Target what they CAN do: Get to the yes by offering limited choices (i.e., “red or blue shoes?”) that you find acceptable.

It might mean you act like a “broken record” during a tantrum. Repeat this cycle as many times as necessary. Parenting is challenging enough; do not rewrite the script. This echo avoids a power struggle during a tantrum. This phrasing will depend on your child; listening and embracing what your kid needs to feel comforted is important.

Teaching children emotional regulation and coping strategies

We need to help them learn what calm looks like and give them compassion when it is a struggle to self-soothe. Our role is to teach kids about emotional regulation. Parents can model positive self-talk for children, and it helps them develop their inner voice. For example, one affirmation that can be useful for kids during a tantrum is: “You are a good kid who is having a hard time.”

They often feel shame and embarrassment during these episodes. We can protect their dignity by offering validation and reassurance. We offer kids a model of self-compassion: it is okay to struggle sometimes; that makes me human.

Physical coping strategies for child tantrums

The strategies listed below can be beneficial to help your child soothe themselves and recover from “flipping their lid” or a tantrum. Try these strategies when the child is already regulated so that you are teaching them when their pre-frontal cortex can receive this information rather than trying to teach them in the middle of a tantrum.

Deep breaths will calm the child’s nervous system

First, teach your child about deep breathing. Model using slow breaths and make a game out of it! The more concrete, the better. For instance, breathe to make the feather move. Pretend you’re blowing out the candle on a cake. Or imagine how a dragon breathes when they blow out fire?! Activating their imagination will redirect them and de-escalate them simultaneously. Win-win!

Cuddling/playing with a favorite toy

Hugging a beloved toy can help soothe your child’s nervous system. It is especially effective for children with sensory sensitivities, such as sensory processing disorder or Autism. The deep pressure from the hug can help them cope with their sensory overload.

Feel-good activities

Children are intuitive. They know what makes them feel better. For different children, different activities might help them. To get their energy out, they might bounce on the trampoline. Another child might require the calmness of coloring to re-focus. Some might use the same material – Play-Doh- in entirely different ways. Smashing Play-Doh can alleviate anger, whereas sculpting can be a way to soothe sadness. Pushing and pulling Play-Doh can be a great way to de-stress.

In the playroom, the children are given the space to attune to what they feel and need. They are practicing mindfulness: identifying their feelings and engaging in activities that allow them to express them. Playing is a child’s way of processing their world. Having your child identify their preferred coping strategies is a way to collaboratively problem solve and empower them to make choices that help them meet their needs.

How to nurture emotional resilience in children

Their ability to reason within the moment may be limited, but children are natural problem-solvers. It is crucial to connect with them in the aftermath of a severe tantrum or meltdown. Validate the difficulty of managing overwhelming feelings and encourage them to reflect. What happened from their perspective? What was the most challenging part? What did you feel?

The last question may be challenging to answer. Identification of feelings is a skill, and it is very useful to normalize the discussion around feelings. As a parent, you can model them yourself: “Ugh, the iPad isn’t working, so I feel a little angry.” While seemingly silly, this narration is a powerful way to help children see what steps you take when feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. Most importantly, they learn that they are not alone in these feelings.

Ask them to talk about what would help in the future. What do they think they need to hear or do in those moments? This conversation is an opportunity to help them learn from the experience, and they feel like you are on their team.

Parenting is challenging, and we are here to help. Children and adults are constantly learning, and our role is to help coach you through positive parenting techniques to regulate emotions for yourself and your child.

For more ideas and resources, please get in touch with Anchor Light Therapy Collective to schedule a free, 20-minute consultation on how therapeutic play can help nurture emotional resilience in your child.

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