Young children find it difficult to control themselves. They are just learning how to control their body, mind and feelings. Sometimes this leads to intense emotional outbursts, accompanied by crying, screaming, rolling on the floor, flailing arms and legs, or even kicking and hitting.
These outbursts, known as temper tantrums, are not a sign that the child is bad, spoiled or manipulative. They are a normal part of development between the ages of 1 and 4, when children learn how to be themselves, but don’t know yet what adults find acceptable. However, even though it’s natural, a temper tantrum is certainly an unpleasant experience for both parents or children. To learn how to manage it, we must first understand
what is it about the child's brain that causes tantrums.
The brain can be roughly divided into two parts - "upper" and "lower" brain. Each of these parts performs different tasks.
The upper brain is in charge of logic and reason, while the lower brain controls our innate reactions and instincts, and strong emotions such as fear and anger.
Both parts of the brain are very important and play critical roles in different situations. We need the upper brain, for example, in order to plan a task, whereas the lower brain would help us if we need to act quickly in case of danger.
In children, however, the upper brain isn’t well-developed yet. In fact, it develops fully only after 20 years of age. This means that the lower brain in children often takes over, especially when they feel stressed, scared or threatened. At such moments, they react very impulsively and uncontrollably. It is impossible to reason them out of the situation, simply because the upper brain has temporarily shut down.
Then how can we turn it back on?
This is not always an easy task and it certainly can't happen right away, as if we had a magic wand. It could take a few minutes, quarter of an hour or longer for the child's natural “alarm system” to settle down and allow the child to be able to reason again.
The good news is that if we follow these tips, we can turn temper tantrums into useful lessons. Little by little, children will learn how to deal with the strong feelings of frustration and anger at not getting their way, and they will become better communicators. The important thing is to reinforce two things. The first thing are the boundaries that are being contested, and the second thing is the child's confidence that they have our unconditional love and support.
What is most important to do?
1. Remain calm
To be able to calm the child, it is important that we calm ourselves first. This, of course, is quite difficult, especially when the child is rolling on the street in tears or screaming loudly in the store.
The problem is that if we lose our composure, start to shout, pull the child forcefully or threaten him, we activate the lower brain even more and block the upper brain. This only aggravates the situation. Like airplane passengers who are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks first before assisting children in case of an emergency, parents need to be able to calm themselves first and then try to calm the child. A few deep breaths or stepping out of the room for a short time can be very effective.
2. Offer physical comfort
What the lower brain responds to well is physical contact. Approaching the child, holding them gently, hugging or holding their hand - these actions can help to calm the raging emotional "storm" inside them. It’s important that the child feels the physical closeness and is able to lean on our body for comfort.
If the child refuses our offer, there is no need to insist. We can just say "I'm here if you need me." or "I see that you don't want my help now, but I'll be there for you if you want to hug or talk."
3. Validate the child's emotions
The act of naming our emotions has great power. We can drastically reduce our stress levels by simply saying out loud how we feel.
However, this is not always easy, much less for young children who are just learning how to recognise their feelings. Plus, temper tantrums are usually the result of a whole range of feelings that have boiled over at some point. In addition to angry and sad, children may feel frustrated at not being competent enough, fearful that mom and dad don't love them anymore, jealous of someone who gets more attention, and so on.
Here comes our key role as parents to briefly name the child’s feelings during the temper tantrum, since they won’t be able to do it on their own (and to ask if unsure what the feelings are). This way our child will know that their emotions are validated and respected. For example,"I see you're very angry that we can't buy that toy car. You wish you could buy anything you like from the store."
4. Keep the boundaries
Sometimes we are ready to give in to any demands our child may have, just so that they stop throwing a tantrum and making a scene. In an attempt to distract them, we resort to offering toys or treats or directly handing them our smartphone. Other times we manage to hold out for ten or twenty minutes, but eventually we can't stand it anymore and back down.
Unfortunately, if we agree to buy the toy, extend screentime or grant any other wish against the rules, we send the child a very wrong message. Namely, that boundaries are not so important and that this kind of behaviour is advantageous. The next time the child throws a tantrum, they will be expecting their reward.
Learn more about boundary setting and keeping from our article Setting Limits: How to Do It Effectively (Part 2)
5. Don't go into lengthy explanations
When the lower brain acts disconnected from the upper brain, it’s practically impossible to resolve the situation with reasonable explanations. For us there may be a perfectly logical solution to the problem, but in this state the child is not able to perceive it.
Even if our detailed explanations are said with a soothing voice, we risk confusing and frustrating the child, whose vocabulary is still limited. It’s better to stick to a few short sentences and then remain silent while proving physical comfort.
6. Discuss the situation after the child has calmed down
The child has stopped screaming, the crying has subsided. Now it's possible to talk to the child about what happened because they have gained control of their upper brain. This is the time to discuss the child’s feelings and behaviour, how the temper tantrum could have been prevented and how to cope next time.
Naturally, we should use age-appropriate language. For a 3-4 year-old child, for example, we can say: "Dear, I know how much you wanted another piece of cake and how angry you were when I said no. Feeling angry is normal. Still, you are not allowed to shout and kick others. Kicking hurts, as does loud screaming. Next time just tell me how angry you are and we’ll talk about it, okay?"
But can't we just ignore the temper tantrum until it's over?
There are experts who advise parents to ignore tantrums, as long as their child and people around are safe. In their view children throw tantrums only to seek attention and consequently every active intervention on the part of parents (no matter supportive or threatening) only reinforces the behaviour.
If parents react with excessive attention, very strong emotions or lengthy explanations, which rather sound like excuses, children can indeed be left with the impression that they control the boundaries at home instead of their parents.
However, it’s worth considering the idea that children who seek attention through tantrums somehow really need that attention. They need to be heard and understood. Turning our backs on them and pretending we don't notice them is like telling them "I don't accept your feelings. I’ll leave you alone until you suppress them. I will love you again if you behave well.”
If our reaction to a temper tantrum is a crisis intervention, what can we do between the crises, in order to reduce their frequency and intensity? How can we help children become better at regulating their emotions? Expect the answers in our next article.
"No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind" by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Published in 2014.
"The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind" by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Published in 2011.
"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria."