Tantrums are emotions. Big emotions in little bodies that don’t yet know how to handle them. When emotions overwhelm a child, their brain isn’t able to maintain rational control; the amygdala (brain area responsible for reactive emotions) is going haywire and a toddler’s pre-frontal cortex (responsible for regulating behaviour) has not yet developed enough to rein things in.
The only way their young brain/body knows how to regain balance is to release the emotional overload! Research shows that tears are packed full of powerful stress-relieving hormones and signal to others that we need love and support.
Of course, particularly with older children, challenging behaviours can be premeditated, and in those cases, we should respond with clear boundaries/consequences.
But, when a tantrum is caused by a “system overload” we must give our little ones what they need – connection & calm. During the height of the tantrum is no time to try to engage, instead ‘contain the storm’ and worry about what caused it once it’s blown through.
Strategies that might help you & your child find balance post-tantrum:
🔅Redirect their energy by moving their bodies. Run around outside, do some yoga poses.
🔅Tantrums are exhausting (for you both!), don’t forget basic needs. Offer a snack, a rest or a regulating activity, such as a bath or reading a book.
🔅Kick their pre-frontal cortex into gear with engaging verbal tasks – ask a seemingly random question: what colour is Grandma’s hair?
🔅Once calm is fully restored, you can re-engage with the ‘executive areas’ of their brain by reflecting on why certain expectations or rules exist in your home. This can then prompt discussions about the tantrum itself and strategies about how to react differently next time.
Most importantly of all, give you and your little one a pat on the back. Being small and parenting a small person is HARD work. We all have to have a little cry and yell sometimes.
References: Potegal & Davidson (1997), Siegal & Payne Bryson (2012)