When Tantrums Get in the Way

“No! I don’t WANT to!” You hear that telltale tone in your 5-year-old’s voice. You see their face scrunch, their fists clench, and you know what’s coming next; a full-blown temper tantrum. As they wind up to hit, you firmly say, “If you hit me, you will lose the iPad.” They scream louder, and hit anyway. “That’s it, NO iPad today!” you say, your own mood starting to go downhill. “I DON’T CARE!” screams your child. You try ignoring them. This makes things worse and they relentlessly knock over everything in sight. You hold your ground and take away the iPad for the whole week. The cycle continues for what seems like hours, until your child is too exhausted to keep fighting, at which point they finally collapse in tears or fall asleep. 


All you’d done was ask them to brush their teeth.


If you’re a parent, you’ve probably experienced something like this before. Emotional outbursts, or tantrums, are a typical part of emotional development, especially in toddlers. But when outbursts persist beyond this age and interfere with the daily lives of your family, it’s time to dig deeper. Keep reading for information on where tantrums come from and how to best handle them.

1. To understand tantrums, start with the brain.

In short, our “feeling brain” develops much quicker than our “thinking brain.” The part of our brain that is responsible for emotions, memory, and survival instincts (the limbic system) develops at a very early age. On the other hand, our “thinking” brain, specifically the part that controls how we respond to emotions (the medial prefrontal cortex) is not finished developing until as late as our early to mid-twenties. The result? We experience VERY BIG feelings long before we have the capability to manage them rationally.

2. What does this mean for behavior?

When a child’s brain doesn’t know how to manage an emotion, it typically resorts to the system that is the most developed (the feeling brain). As the brain’s number one goal is to ensure survival, the protective response system (also known as fight or flight) is easily activated. When a young child experiences a negative emotion (anger, disappointment, frustration, or even just not wanting to brush their teeth), often the only way the brain is able to process this unpleasant feeling is as a danger. The fight or flight system activates, and suddenly, your sweet toddler starts kicking, screaming, crying, biting… As toddlers grow into children, they typically begin to learn skills to manage their emotions, problem solve, and limit the activation of the fight or flight system. This skill development continues into adulthood. Sometimes, though, children have difficulty gaining these skills, for a wide variety of reasons. The result? Meltdowns that continue into childhood and disrupt everyday life.

3. During a tantrum, children truly can’t control themselves

When in a tantrum state, you may have noticed that your child doesn’t respond to consequences, rewards, or rationality. Why? All of these things are controlled by the thinking brain, and they are presently under the control of their feeling brain. Once their emotions are elevated and fight or flight system is activated, no amount of negotiation will calm them back down. Their actions at this point are not calculated or premeditated. Their brain is on high alert and their body is just following orders.

4. So what can we do?

L.R. Knost said it best: “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”

When we approach tantrums with an understanding of basic brain science, we can be much more effective in helping our kids before and during an outburst. While every child is unique, there are some general principles that apply. First, try to prevent tantrums before they happen. How? By learning the signs of your child’s emotions, and by intervening at the first sign of an elevated emotion to help them calm down. In that moment, do not threaten consequences or try to negotiate with them, as these tend to only make things worse. Next, stay calm yourself. When the feeling brain is taking over (or has already taken over), the only way to calm the child is to calm the feeling brain. If your emotions elevate, their feeling brain will only see even more cause for alarm. 

So, whether the child is about to go into a tantrum or is already past the point of no return, your approach will be very similar. Think of what calmed them when they were infants, or what calms them down before sleep. Whether it’s singing, hugs, or a silly face to make them laugh, these types of calming activities help your child’s feeling brain to relax and can help prevent further escalation. Then, the thinking brain is able to take over again. Later, when the child is calm and the thinking brain is firmly in control, talk to them about what upset them and listen to their responses. The more engaged the child is during this conversation, the more likely you both are to learn from the experience. Don’t ignore the problem or pretend the meltdown didn’t happen. Instead, talk about it and work with your child to figure out how the request to brush their teeth could be handled better next time. For more on how understanding your child’s perspective and working with them to problem solve to help decrease future outbursts, check out the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach.

5. What if that doesn't work?

While this post focuses on purely emotional triggers, it is also possible for your child’s behavior to be a product of sensory processing difficulties (such as sound sensitivity), anxiety, or a variety of other triggers. Your pediatrician, along with an occupational therapist or psychologist can help you determine exactly what the root source of your child’s difficulties are. They can also help your child develop the skills needed to best handle triggering situations, as well as to identify and manage their emotions. 

At TCS, we believe that every child may benefit from improved emotional awareness and regulation, whether or not there are significant behavior challenges at home or school. We help children in our community develop these skills in a small group format through our Self-Regulation Superstars program. 

Tantrums aren’t fun for anyone. But, with a change in mindset, a few changes in your parenting approach, and professional help when needed, they don’t have to get in the way of living your life.

More information:

If tantrums are disrupting your life and interfering with your child’s ability to participate in daily activities, contact us for a free consultation to discuss your concerns and the possibility of occupational therapy treatment. 

We are also currently accepting enrollment for our January/February 2020 Self-Regulation Superstars program. See our Community Programs page for details and registration.

Sources and additional information:

Hand model of the brain, Dr. Dan Seigel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw&t=27s

University of Rochester Medical Center: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=3051

“Kids do well if they can,” Dr. Ross Greene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvzQQDfAL-Q

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