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Temper Tantrums: What Happens If Emotions Aren't Taught

What do you notice when a child throws a tantrum?

They cry non-stop. They throw all the stuff around. Their body goes limp and sprawl on the ground. They scream at the top of their lungs. They refuse to say anything when asked "What's wrong?" They can't be distracted to do anything else. They don't listen to reasons or respond to treats. They don't want a hug, yet when you don't hug them, they get angrier.

Our instinctive response when a child throws a temper tantrum is to shut it down PRONTO.

"Stop crying!"

"Go to your room!"

"You better stop this right now or I'll..."

It's disturbing. It's annoying. It's frustrating. For us. We want to shut it down like we flip a switch OFF.

Understanding the Physiological Reasons behind Tantrums

As much as you might want to try explaining to your kid why they should calm down, behavior correction rarely works when stress is high.

Meltdowns are a physiological response connected to the brain's natural threat detection system. So how do we help our child feel safe and help pull them out of the freak out moment?

According to R. Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist and author of “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain,” a temper tantrum involves two parts of the brain: the amygdala, which is primarily responsible for processing emotions like fear or anger; and the hypothalamus, which in part controls unconscious functions like heart rate or temperature. Think of the amygdala as the brain’s smoke detector and the hypothalamus as someone deciding whether to put gasoline or water on the fire — with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

When a child suddenly starts wailing about sleeping alone in her bed at night, she’s probably not consciously being difficult — their amygdala detected a threat and their hypothalamus caused them to snap.

During the stress response, they might experience a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and tense muscles (or just an overwhelming urge to punch you). As much as we may want to reason with our writhing child, don’t expect them to listen. For one thing, the stress response can dampen a child’s already-limited capacity for self-control, a function generally associated with the prefrontal cortex, or PFC.

When a driver suddenly cuts in front of us, our blood begins to boil, but adults can hit the breaks on a stress response because our prefrontal cortex is allowing us to think, "Wait a minute. I need to act safely on the road."

But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood and, according to Dr. Fields, inhibition and impulse control are among the PFC’s most complicated functions. So when we try to reason with a child, we're appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully functioning, yet.

In these moments, the intensity of the feeling overwhelms the child’s ability to organize it, so the feelings get stronger than the lid.

Fortunately, with our own developed brain, we can help our kid replace the lid on the pot during a meltdown moment by using our prefrontal cortex as a surrogate.

Remove Possible Triggers

We should first access the situation that we're encountering when our children is having tantrums.

Think about which situations are the toughest for our child to handle, physically and emotionally.

If we're in the shopping mall for a long time, and it's past their meal time, perhaps they're hungry. Could it be that they had a long day and it's past their nap time already? Try to identify and eliminate our children's personal triggers, then consider how we can change our own behaviors to help them cope. One example would be putting away our child's favorite toy away before a play date instead of pressing them to share.

Manage Our Own Emotions

First, take a deep breath. Our child's negative emotion can easily affect ours. Try to separate their emotions with our own. Evaluate your child's mindset to see if they are ready to discuss the issues at hand.

"Is he sleepy/hungry?"

"Is she in the mood to chat?"

"Do they need some time or need my help?

Give yourself ample time to think and construct what will be said. It can be 5 seconds later, or it can be the next day.

"You are frustrated because I spend more time with your baby sister. I need some time to think about it. We'll talk about this tomorrow morning, okay?"

Manage Our Child's Emotions

When a child is having strong emotions, verbalize the emotions we see the child is exhibiting.

"You look very angry/sad/frustrated."

Describe the child's facial expressions and body gestures can greatly enhance the child's mindfulness of their own actions.

"Your face is all red, and you're shouting very loud."

"You're lying on the dirty ground right now with your new outfit."

"You're crying so hard that you can hardly see what's in front of you."

As much as you might want to try explaining to your kid why they should calm down, behavior correction rarely works when stress is high. Once your child’s partially-developed prefrontal cortex is back online, take the opportunity to help them form a story about the meltdown. Validating how hard the moment was and repeating back what happened by follow up with a statement that describes the situation at hand by linking their feelings.

"Your sister took your toy away from you so you're angry."

"You're upset that we have to leave the playground now."

"You are frustrated because I just told you that we can't buy this toy."

Instilling a Constructive Mindset

If your child is displaying unacceptable behaviors, such as harming others or harming themselves, that needs to be addressed with an alternative method.

"You're upset about not having a playdate this weekend and you're throwing your toys around. I can't allow that. But you can tell me more about what is upsetting you or you can draw it on the paper."

Take this opportunity to let your child know that there are other possible coping solutions to diffuse the situation at hand.

"Would you need some time to be left alone to calm down?

"How about splashing some cool water on your face to refresh a little?

Install a hopeful and positive mindset by reminding your child who love an support them.

"I love you no matter what. May I give you a hug?"

Children have feelings, too. They feel anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, etc., just like adults do. When a child is having all these emotions but lack the physiological capabilities, vocabularies or understanding to properly express them, it's not hard to understand how it's their first instinctive response to resort to full-blown tantrum.

Dealing with our daily hustle and bustle, we often don't give children enough opportunity to learn about emotions or teach them how to express their feelings or thoughts. This inadvertently adds stress and pressure onto their emotional state, forcing them to keep their emotions to themselves until one day they explode outwardly by either self-harming or harming others. This vicious process actually decrease children's own level of resilience and empathy.

This is precisely the reason why we need to emphasize the importance of teaching emotions to young children. Teaching children about their feelings is just as important as teaching them about colors, alphabets, and numbers.

Our multi-award winning toolkit Empower Empathy includes not only a board game but also a guidebook for parents and teachers on dealing with big emotions. It offers insights to understand how emotional awareness plays into emotional regulation. As children play the board game, the simulated situations help children understand how to rationally comb through their thoughts, feelings, and actions while having great engaging fun.

When your child is having a meltdown, which strategies have you tried that have worked well for you? Tell us about it!


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