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