Ask Dr. Bronwyn
Here’s What To Do When Your Kid Has A Temper Tantrum
- Written By
- Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
- Loris Lora
Regardless of what parents have heard about “all feelings being welcome,” in the middle of a temper tantrum, it’s often hard to view kid’s unreasonable and defiant behavior as anything but 1) a sign that they’re being manipulated, 2) a red flag that something’s wrong with their kid, or 3) a gauge of their failings as a parent.
The problem is, though, perspective shapes our response. So, with thoughts like these, it’s no wonder that so many parents with such good intentions get to the point where they’re just as liable as their child to end up saying and doing things they regret during a tantrum. When we become so fed up with the dramatics, carrying out our goals of helping our child learn to better manage their emotions becomes impossible.
What makes this likelihood especially true are common misperceptions and inaccurate expectations for children’s behavior.
For parents to have authentic compassion and uphold their discipline goals, it’s important that they understand two of the brain-based reasons why kids can seem so unreasonable, dramatic, and unpredictable.
First, although we are born with a fully developed emotional brain, the part of our brain responsible for cognitive tasks like self-regulation, or the ability to control our emotions and behavior, inhibition and impulse control aren’t fully developed until our mid-twenties. Meaning, young children are born with adult-size feelings, but an underequipped toddler-strength-capacity to manage them.
Second, we’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, but did you know that our brain’s primary goal is to keep us alive? To do so, it’s constantly on the lookout for any threat to our survival. When the threat is legitimate, like if a saber tooth tiger is running in our direction, then the alarm coming from our emotional brain (aka the Amygdala) warrants taking our thinking brain offline, so that we can make a split-second decision and escape.
That’s what’s happening in your child’s brain when they suddenly start freaking out over how far open you’ve cracked their door at bedtime. They’re most likely not consciously giving you a hard time. It’s just that thanks to their Amygdala detecting a threat (e.g., separation anxiety, fear of the dark), it’s shut down communication with their thinking brain. So, when you try to reason with them by explaining how the door is exactly the number of inches open that it is every night, you’re wasting your time. Their capacity for logic and reasoning has left the building.
We also see variability in the strength and frequency of temper tantrums thanks to differences in temperament. Depending on whether your child is an intense and sensitive reactor by nature, or more mellow and easygoing, you’ll see differences in how quickly and strongly they react to things.
Bottom line, when our young child is losing it, making poor choices, acting aggressively, etc., they need our help, because it’s not them, it’s their brain.
Every time we respond to these intense reactions and emotional meltdowns – without judgements or qualifiers – we strengthen the connection between their emotional and thinking brains, making it easier for them to cope with the challenges in their life, communicate emotions effectively and show resilience. Through our relationship with our children, combined with limit setting, they learn that all feelings are normal and that they can handle them.
Here are some Dos and Don’ts of how to hande a temper tantrum:
- fix, cave, or rescue. It’s natural to want to protect our children, but by shielding them from experiencing distress in their daily lives (e.g., from not getting what they want or having to follow rules), we rob them of the chance to learn how to tolerate or manage the challenges of life.
- punish, threaten, or scold. Young children’s inability to make sense, respond reasonably or manage their emotions at times isn’t intentional, but due to weak skills and an underequipped thinking brain, so no form of punishment, threats or consequences will make them be able to the next time.
- talk it over and over. Don’t make too big a deal over unreasonable behaviors observed during temper tantrums, since young children tend to not even remember what they did or said when their thinking brain was offline and older kids will likely only feel shame or embarrassment.
- appeal to reason or logic. As much as you may want to reason with your child during a temper tantrum or get them to move on or get over it, let it go. Thanks to the stress response, any talking at all might escalate their distress, making it even harder for them to calm down.
- co-regulate. Thanks to your own developed brain, you’re able to fill in as your child’s surrogate PFC and share your calm with them. When you pair your calm with empathic cues, you send a signal to your child’s Amygdala that all is well.
- plan to avoid temper tantrum triggers. Try to anticipate your child’s tantrum-triggers (e.g., hunger, fatigue, overstimulation, uncertainty, vague limits) and head them off. If bedtime has become stressful, anticipate all their delay tactics, and define clear limits ahead of time. Write the “social story,” for your child of bedtime, explaining what you’ll do during emotional meltdowns (e.g., hold space) and how you’ll stick to your clearly defined limits.
- hold space. Let their feelings flow without getting sucked in or trying to fix, change or shorten them.
- welcome all feelings. Make sure your child knows that all feelings are valid by encouraging them to be expressed with a one-size-fits-all response of acceptance and compassion. None are our responsibi lity to make better or change and or are more important than another.
- model emotion regulation From birth through adulthood, we model behavior every time we interact with our children and manage our own feelings.
- show compassion. You may not agree with the intensity or impetus for your child’s feeling, but no doubt, you’ve felt the feeling before, so validate it.
- stay calm. It takes a whole lot of self-awareness and self-regulation on our part to avoid yelling and manage o ur own mounting discomfort that can be triggered by our toddler’s temper tantrums. Have some tools at the ready to regulate your own stress response before engaging with your child.
- take a moment if you need to. If you feel your own blood beginning to boil, if your child is safe, walk away for a few minutes to de-escalate your own frustration (e.g., deep breaths, visualization).
- be an authoritative parent. Maintain your “cool” and show compassion and warmth, while still upholding firm boundaries and limits. Learning to manage disappointment and frustration in the face of obstacles and rules we don’t like is part of emotional intelligence.
- chase the Why? Consider the root cause of your child’s intense reactions and feelings, since tantrums are a form of expression (e.g., hunger, fatigue, frustration, disappointment), so you can better anticipate and address them.
- catch them being good Young children are hard-wired to seek attention from parents of any kind, so remember to notice and call out the times your child manages their big feelings (e.g., being told “no,” without having a temper tantrum).
- save problem-solving for later. Once everyone is calm and your child’s thinking brain is back online, if you feel like a conversation could help prevent something similar from happening in the future, validate how hard the moment was and discuss ways of handling it better next time (ideally with their input).