We live for Saturdays in my house. It’s the only morning that a few significant things happen: endless kiddo snuggles, cartoons, and coffee in a mug instead of a travel tumbler. Perhaps the most important, though, is: PANCAKES. My boys eat those things up in .4 seconds. -they are somehow gone before they even hit the plate. So you may understand my surprise when my oldest son, who was 2 at the time, lost his mind with a tantrum when I cut his pancake into pieces without warning him (rookie mistake). I’m not talking whining and complaining. I’m talking on-the-floor, shortness-of-breath-from-crying-so-hard kind of tantrum.
I know I am not alone when discussing the nonsensical triggers to tantrums. There are entire web pages of parents sharing “ridiculous” and “hilarious” reasons why children throw tantrums. So, since tantrums are inevitable and cannot always be prevented (see How to Prevent Tantrums at Target) I will discuss with you ways to manage them and teach skills in the process.
Here’s the thing about temper tantrums: they are often involuntary. Yes, sometimes children may choose to have a tantrum to get what they want. But, most of the time, they are a result of the very big feelings that kids experience without the ability to regulate them.
We now have decades of brain research that is informing us of ways to parent according to our children’s developing brains. So, when your child is having (“throwing” assumes intentional action) a tantrum, this brain science is teaching parents how to intervene in a way that acknowledges the neurological functions and needs of children.
Let’s discuss a few of the brain mechanics that are at play during tantrums.
Right Brain/Left Brain:
When children experience strong emotions on the right side of their brain, their logic on the left side of their brain is inaccessible. So, when a child feels something strongly, he is unable to rationalize it. So, that Saturday morning, my son was unable to think to himself: “The pancake will taste the same whether it’s whole or in pieces” or “I can just ask for another pancake” or even “I actually prefer my pancake cut.” In fact, even if I told him those logical conclusions, it wouldn’t register or soothe him because during his intense emotions, logic was nowhere to be found. What he needed in that moment was for me to calmly interact with the right side of his brain, where his emotions are. He needed me to speak the language he was feeling. “Oh wow, you must be frustrated. I can see that you’re having a hard time. I know you are feeling angry.”
Connect and Redirect:
If we calmly speak the emotional language children are experiencing in the right brain during tantrums, our chance of having a (short-term and long-term) happy ending increases significantly. When children feel as though they are seen and understood, they are automatically soothed and comforted. It is crucial for parents to connect with their children and their emotions before they do or say anything else. Then, and (almost) only then will they be able to receive and really understand the logic or lesson that will follow. This receptive state allows parents to then redirect their behavior effectively. If we try to redirect (apply logic, rationalize, teach a lesson) while a child is dysregulated, we will be 99% ineffective. But, if we connect first and then redirect next, their right and left brains will be integrated and they will be receptive to our redirection. At that point, lessons can be learned, behaviors can be redirected, and new skills can be acquired.
Teaching immediate & lifelong skills:
We don’t need brain research to know that emotions develop early on in children’s development. The limbic system, namely the amygdala, is the integrative center responsible for emotions and emotional behaviors. We can thank the amygdala for the strong feelings that children express during tantrums. It does not take much work to stimulate these feelings, but it does take a lot of work to manage them well. That is where caregivers come in. Parents, teachers, therapists have the opportunity to teach children the life-long skill of regulating their emotions well. More on that next.
The most complex brain functions are housed in the prefrontal cortex. This is where executive functions occur, including sustained attention, planning, inhibition, and organization, to name a few. Since the prefrontal cortex is under construction until early-to-mid twenties, children have little capability for impulse control, emotional regulation, and problem solving-all of which fly out the window during tantrums. Children require guidance to utilize their executive functions and to do that well. During a tantrum, once parents have connected with and soothed their child, they have the opportunity to help them engage their prefrontal cortex by reflecting on the tantrum. This may include asking questions such as, “What do you think went wrong? What can you do differently next time? How can you ask for what you want? How can you let me know what you need?” This pattern of connecting and redirecting is another form of brain integration just occurring in another part of the brain. Regardless of tantrums, the more opportunities parents have to teach these executive functioning skills, the more lifelong benefits children will have.
Calm is key:
One of the hardest but most important elements during tantrums is for parents to keep their cool. It is up to parents to calm the dysregulated child so that he feels safe, soothed, and secure. Only then will he or she be in a receptive state rather than a reactive state. If parents react emotionally, the child’s tantrum will escalate. But, if parents can be a grounding, soothing presence, the child’s tantrum will decrease. So, I encourage parents to do whatever it takes to manage yourself while dealing with your child’s tantrum. Sometimes the deep breathes that parents are modeling are just as much for them as their child!
Parenting and disciplining according to your child’s developing brains requires intentionality and patience, but can have lifelong benefits. Although it’s difficult when children seem to lose their minds during tantrums, we have the opportunity to help them find it by intervening calmly and purposefully.
Dr. Alana Roth
Do you have a child who is struggling socially, emotionally, or academically? I specialize in working with children to integrate developmentally appropriate, research-based treatments and walk alongside families in the healing process.
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