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The Science of Tantrums

Nearly every parent has experienced it: your child is a perfect angel one moment and is balling up their little fists of fury the next. Temper tantrums can be hard on everyone around – child, parent, and innocent bystander just trying to buy some gum and go home. While these episodes may be frustrating or embarrassing, it helps many parents to know that tantrums are a normal part of childhood and can be dealt with in a constructive manner.

toddler crying in white tshirt

The type and frequency of tantrums varies. These freak-out moments can range from whining and refusing to budge to screaming and physically lashing out.  Some children throw punches, while others hold their breath. Tantrums are common in both boys and girls and are a normal part of child development. Some kids may experience them frequently while others only throw tantrums once in a blue moon. They can be caused by fatigue, hunger, or something else entirely. A child might throw a temper tantrum because he didn’t get the toy he wanted, or because his plate has the ‘wrong’ number of apple slices.

As silly as these causes may be, sometimes your intervention to calm your child sends her further into a spiral. How can you as a parent better help your child during a tantrum? Understanding the science behind your child’s tantrum may equip you to aid in their struggle.

The Underlying Physiology of Tantrums

Meltdowns are a physiological response connected to the brain’s natural threat detection system. Parents who understand what is happening on the inside may be able to help mitigate the perceived threat, making the child feel safe and helping to pull them out of the freakout moment. 

Temper tantrums involve two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter in the brain that is involved in emotion, including anger and fear. The hypothalamus is a small region at the base of the brain, known for its crucial role in many functions including temperature and heart rate. Author R. Douglas Fields, neuroscientist and author of “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain,” uses an analogy to describe how tantrums work. He says to imagine the amygdala as a smoke detector in the brain and the hypothalamus as a person who decides to put water or gasoline (hormones) on the fire.

child crying over crackers

The development of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is a slow process, and the PFC doesn’t develop fully until adulthood. The PFC is at work when someone cuts you off in traffic and you squash your road rage, or a friend says something hurtful and you refrain from replying in kind. Because children have not yet developed the impulse control and inhibition functions associated with the PFC, they may not be able to manage their motions through appeals to logic.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, likens tantrums to a pot of boiling water with the PFC serving as a lid. When a child has a meltdown, the intensity of the feeling during the tantrum overwhelms the child’s ability to organize it, causing the feelings to get stronger than the lid. But as a parent, you can use your own developed brain to replace the lid by using your own PFC as a sort of surrogate. Here are some steps you can take to help.

parents comforting crying girl on bench

Children are not always being consciously difficult when they throw tantrums. The amygdala has detected a threat and the hypothalamus sent the message that causes your child to react. Without quite understanding why, she might experience tense muscles, a racing heartbeat, sweaty hands, and the urge to kick or throw herself to the floor. Though you try as you might to reason with her, she likely won’t listen. But why? Because the stress response she is experiencing can reduce the already limited capacity she has for self-control, a function associated with the prefrontal cortex.

Manage Your Emotions First

Before you try to help your upset child, get your own stress response in check. If your child is otherwise safe, step out of the room for a few minutes and take some deep breaths or take a moment to meditate. Do whatever you need to bring down your level of frustration first. By doing so, you can use your calm state to help calm your child.

The reason this works is not entirely clear, but one idea is that mirror neurons are at play. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire in response to behaviors of your own and those of other people. For example, seeing someone scale the side of a mountain can activate a similar brain region and adrenaline response as when you climbed yourself. Although research on this topic in children is not abundant, it is known that these brain cells might help parents to better understand how their reactions can affect their children. Mirror neurons are present in areas of the brain that deal with emotion, so although your child won’t follow instructions, he might be able to mirror your calm and begin to resolve his tantrum. 

Help Your Child Have An Appropriate Response

In addition to being calm, offering empathy can help signal to your child that there is no danger, encouraging the amygdala to stop sending out the alarm and reducing the stress response.

  • Focus not only on your words but on your actions, including nonverbal communication such as facial expressions, body posture and tone.
  • Get down on your knees, making eye contact to let your child know you care and are on their level.
  • Some children benefit from physical touch. Simply placing a hand on his hand or offering a hug may help. But some kids find it overwhelming so know your child and proceed with caution, backing off quickly and apologizing if your actions upset them more.
  • Encourage self-soothing techniques, such as slow, deep breathing. Offer some silly putty to squeeze or something to push on to release energy. By introducing coping skills, you are teaching your child to manage their emotions and find constructive outlets.

Validate Feelings Post-Tantrum

It is important to try to connect with your child after meltdowns. Talk with them afterward, and be sure to discuss the event, validate how difficult it was to manage their feelings, and encourage your child to reflect on the tantrum. Your child might be able to articulate what initially upset them, and come up with a story for how things escalated. This story can help them learn from the experience and give them a roadmap for navigating future emotional crises. 

By understanding the physiological aspect of tantrums and by following these tips, you will be better equipped to help your child through tantrums. Parenting is tough, but hopefully these tips will make the stressful times a little bit easier. 

 

This blog was written by Mrs. Courtney Cosby and edited by Dr. Majid Fotuhi. 

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