Be­hind the tantrums

Why they’re ac­tu­ally a healthy part of your tod­dler’s devel­op­ment

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents - BY CLIN­I­CAL PSY­CHOL­O­GIST CHEVONNE POW­ELL

It’s the Mon­day morn­ing rush and you’re on your way out of the door when your three-year-old sud­denly stops and re­fuses to move. With­out prior warn­ing she bursts into tears, screams hys­ter­i­cally, throws her bag down and mum­bles through her hys­te­ria that she “never got to say good­bye to Daddy”. As a mom, you’re prob­a­bly more than a lit­tle familiar with this scene, and oth­ers like it. But know­ing ex­actly why your lit­tle one has th­ese fre­quent melt­downs of anger and frus­tra­tion that in­clude any­thing from cry­ing and scream­ing to throw­ing things around and fall­ing to the floor in de­spair goes a long way to deal­ing with them in a way that leaves ev­ery­one feel­ing bet­ter.

THE TWO BRAINS

In or­der to un­der­stand tod­dler tantrums, we need to un­der­stand the parts of the brain that deal with our emo­tions and our abil­ity to con­trol our im­pulses. Imag­ine that the brain is a house. In this house, there are two floors: up­stairs and down­stairs. The down­stairs brain is where all the ba­sics are sit­u­ated. It is usu­ally called the prim­i­tive brain be­cause it is used in our strong emo­tions, our sur­vival in­stincts and ba­sic func­tions like breath­ing or reg­u­lat­ing sleep. This part of the brain is re­ac­tive.

The up­stairs brain is a more re­fined sys­tem. It is used dur­ing tasks such as sound de­ci­sion mak­ing, plan­ning, reg­u­la­tion of our emo­tions and body, per­sonal in­sights, adapt­abil­ity and em­pa­thy. This part of the brain is re­cep­tive. How­ever, in your tod­dler this house is a build­ing that is still un­der con­struc­tion. The down­stairs area is fin­ished, but the up­stairs sec­tion is un­der mas­sive con­struc­tion that lasts un­til our mid-twen­ties. Be­cause of this on­go­ing devel­op­ment and the steep learn­ing curve tod­dler­hood brings, chil­dren be­come stuck down­stairs some­times. With no use of their up­stairs brains they make poor de­ci­sions, “ex­plode” eas­ily and don’t think of oth­ers. So when a child is in a re­ac­tive space there is no up­per brain think­ing hap­pen­ing, and so they can’t work through any emo­tions in that mo­ment.

BUILD­ING THE BRAIN

The brain is a mould­able or­gan that changes phys­i­cally over time by mak­ing con­nec­tions be­tween neu­ral pathways. What cre­ates the change in the brain is ex­pe­ri­ence – the mu­sic we hear, the peo­ple we sur­round our­selves with, the ac­tiv­i­ties we do. Th­ese all af­fect how a child’s brain de­vel­ops. When an ex­pe­ri­ence is re­peated over and over again, it deep­ens and strength­ens the con­nec­tions. Think of how a path­way is forged in a park – the more peo­ple that walk along that path, the deeper the path be­comes and the eas­ier it is to walk along it. This is what hap­pens in your tod­dler’s brain as she grows. The more she ex­pe­ri­ences some­thing, the more en­trenched the path be­comes, and the more of­ten she will re­sort to us­ing that path in her ev­ery­day life. So ev­ery­thing your tod­dler ex­pe­ri­ences af­fects her brain devel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly re­peat ex­pe­ri­ences, and this in­cludes how you re­spond

BE­CAUSE THE DOWN­STAIRS BRAIN IS WHAT IS IN CHARGE DUR­ING A TANTRUM, WHEN YOUR CHILD SEES YOUR EMO­TIONAL AND RE­AC­TIVE RE­SPONSE, HER BRAIN TAKES IN YOUR BODY LAN­GUAGE AND WORDS AS A THREAT. THIS MAKES HER EN­TIRE BODY GO INTO SUR­VIVAL MODE

to her in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. What this all boils down to is that how you choose to re­act to your child’s tantrums im­pacts on the devel­op­ment of her brain and how she be­haves in the fu­ture. Although this sounds like a big re­spon­si­bil­ity, it’s re­ally about be­ing con­scious and in­ten­tional in your par­ent­ing.

YOUR RE­SPONSE IS KEY

You may find that your most com­mon re­sponse to a tantrum is emo­tional and re­ac­tive – yelling, talk­ing with a com­mand­ing voice or even threat­en­ing a smack. Be­cause the down­stairs brain is what is in charge dur­ing a tantrum, when your child sees your emo­tional and re­ac­tive re­sponse, her brain takes in your body lan­guage and words as a threat. This makes her en­tire body go into sur­vival mode, and rather than open­ing her brain up to think about what’s go­ing on, she pre­pares to de­fend her­self. She does this by run­ning away, scream­ing or throw­ing things at you. When a child is in this state of dis­in­te­gra­tion dur­ing a tantrum, she needs to be able to reg­u­late; to calm that down­stairs brain down in or­der to think things through. She can only do this with your help.

POS­I­TIVE DIS­CI­PLINE DUR­ING A TANTRUM

In or­der to help forge the best pos­si­ble pathways you can in your tod­dler’s brain, you need to ap­peal to her up­stairs brain dur­ing a tantrum. This will help her learn how to reg­u­late her down­stairs brain. Try to stay calm and avoid com­mu­ni­cat­ing a sense of threat, both ver­bally and non-ver­bally.

The best way to calm things down is through emo­tional con­nec­tion. When a child is fall­ing apart she needs her par­ents the most. Chil­dren don’t want to be up­set and feel out of con­trol, and tantrums usu­ally hap­pen when a tod­dler is experienci­ng feel­ings she can’t yet man­age or com­mu­ni­cate to you. To connect with her dur­ing a melt­down, try to soothe her, mak­ing her feel loved and un­der­stood. This also deep­ens your re­la­tion­ship. In this way, she will al­ways see you as a safe and sooth­ing space, where she can gain com­fort and un­der­stand­ing. This type of con­nec­tion does not mean you’re con­don­ing the be­hav­iour, it is about choos­ing when to dis­ci­pline so you can make it ef­fec­tive and long last­ing.

Once your tod­dler has calmed down you can im­ple­ment the teach­ing part of dis­ci­pline. This is the time for nat­u­ral con­se­quences and for ask­ing ques­tions. Get her to think about what hap­pened and how she could have han­dled the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter. No mat­ter what their age, giv­ing chil­dren choices teaches re­spon­si­bil­ity and cre­ates con­nec­tions in the brain. Ad­dress the tantrum pos­i­tively in four steps: CONNECT AND AD­DRESS THE FEEL­INGS BE­HIND THE BE­HAV­IOUR Why is your child act­ing this way – is she an­gry, dis­ap­pointed, tired, hun­gry or frus­trated? Look at the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the sit­u­a­tion to see what could be caus­ing your child’s dis­tress, and then give her the words to ex­plain her feel­ings. For ex­am­ple, in a calm and kind way say, “I can see you are feel­ing quite up­set right now. Some­times it can be dif­fi­cult to share your favourite things with oth­ers.”

AD­DRESS THE BE­HAV­IOUR

“Even though we feel up­set, hit­ting hurts oth­ers.”

GIVE AL­TER­NA­TIVES “We need to be gen­tle with our friends.” If she’s a bit older you might ask, “What do you think we should do to make it bet­ter?”

MOVE ON TO SOME­THING BET­TER “Let’s go back out­side and see what other fun games we can all play to­gether.”

While a tantrum is up­set­ting for ev­ery­one in­volved, know­ing how to han­dle it pos­i­tively means that each tantrum that comes af­ter it gets a lit­tle bit bet­ter, lay­ing the foun­da­tions for a strong sense of aware­ness in your child for the fu­ture. YB

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