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The Neuroscience of Tantrums

Tantrums are emotions. Big emotions in little bodies that don’t yet know how to handle them. When children have big emotions, they are easily overwhelmed. The only way their young brain/body knows how to regain balance is to release the emotional overload! Want to know how you can better help your child during a tantrum? Understanding the science behind the tantrum can be really useful.

Tantrums involve 2 parts of the brain: the amygdala & the hypothalamus. The amygdala is a small almond-shaped area in the brain that detects emotions, specifically anger & fear. The hypothalamus is a small region at the base of the brain, known for its crucial role in many functions including temperature & heart rate.

A good analogy for how tantrums work is imagining the amygdala as a smoke detector & the hypothalamus as someone who deciding whether to put gasoline or water on the fire — using hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

As adults, our brains work in a very similar way. The key difference though is that we have a fully functioning pre-frontal cortex (PFC) which is responsible for impulse control. The PFC is at work when someone cuts you off in traffic & instead of going full road-rage on them, you quietly hope they get red lights for the rest of their trip.

Basically, a tantrum is like a pot of boiling water and the PFC is like a lid. Children have an immature PFC and when you haven’t yet developed a lid, it's easy for the water to boil over! In fact, the PFC doesn’t fully develop until early adulthood.

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 clear “system overload” we must give our little ones what they need – connection & calm.

Understanding the ‘why’ behind our children’s tantrums can help us better understand their experience.

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