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Tantrums – Behind the ScreamsTantrums – Behind the Screams

We all know about tantrums, even long before we have children ourselves. We know because we hear people talk about it and of course we see others’ children throwing themselves on the floor in the supermarket.

It may not feel it when your child is in the middle of a massive tantrum, but "throwing a tantrum” is a normal release of stress and frustration for young children. They enter a temporary "emotional crisis” as they are unable to regulate their emotional impulses.

What causes a tantrum? From what we know so far, factors include:

  • Children’s frustration or anger when not being able to do something or make themselves understood
  • Children’s drive for independence
  • Immature prefrontal cortex ("rational brain”) to help regulate emotions and inhibit impulses
  • Fatigue, overstimulation, distress, or when there is a deviation from the child’s normal routine (causing confusion and perhaps anxiety due to lack of predictability)

Looking "behind the screams” of tantrums will help equip you with a better understanding of what is actually going on for your child mid-outburst, and therefore how you can support her emotionally and practically.

Hijacked by Tantrums

A familiar experience had, or to come: Being ‘hijacked’ by a tantrum at the worst possible moment: when trying to get out of the house, just before bed time, or the all-time favourite – in aisle 3 of the supermarket! But who is really by being hijacked?

Children throw tantrums, parents have to stay calm, collected and sensitive to their emotions. This sometimes puts us to the test, of course, in particular when the tantrum seems to have been unleashed for no good reason at all! These are the times we may more easily feel our patience running the other way and it takes all our energy to stay calm.

Behind the Screams

Of course, the one really hijacked by the tantrum is your child. In fact, recent research shows that children are unable to calm themselves down when a real tantrum has kicked in. Their brain is still developing, and the more immature part of the brain in early childhood is the "rational brain”, tasked with cooling down boiling emotions. Your child is therefore more ruled by the "emotional brain”, which is why she tends to be impulse and emotion driven. And it’s why strong emotions can take over so dramatically during a tantrum.

However challenging it can be for you, you have to be her "rational brain” to provide balance to her emotionally driven brain. Some tantrums need your cool and calm to maintain control of the situation (say in the supermarket, when your child wants something so badly she screams enough to fill all the aisles). Other tantrums end in real tears for your little one as she feels overwhelmed and scared by her own strong emotions, and feels unable to calm down. She needs you to be her support and bring her back to a safe, calm existence.

Practical Guidance for Parents

Our practical guidance is based on science. Here are 5 practical everyday tips you can apply today to help your child towards a calmer road.

1. Stay close. Be your child’s support and help her find ways to calm down. Depending on your child, physical contact during a tantrum may or may not be the right thing. But being close is important. Let her know that she is not abandoned.

2. Stay calm. Not always easy, but remember: Your child lacks the brain maturity and experience to deal with the strong emotions mid-tantrum, and he learns how to cope from what you role model.

3. Help release emotions. Allow them to cry it out first and then offer opportunity to talk about it. Don’t try to talk things through or ask her to tell you what’s wrong until you have calm sea.

4. Distract and relax. Distract and relax. Relaxation counters anxiety. Find something your child is interested in (she is naturally curious), calm things down by focusing on the distraction together.

5. Triggers and tantrum preventers
  1. Notice triggers, e.g. situations or times of day tantrums are more likely to happen
  2. Teach practical skills that can help your child cope with frustrations while the his "rational brain” is still maturing
  3. Give your child some control by providing choices, reducing frustrations and providing a sense of control
  4. Provide consistency. Children generally prefer a predictable existence.

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