Tantrums can rattle even the calmest of parents. Your child is screaming, overwhelmed, and in anguish, and he or she may be acting out toward you directly. Nothing you are doing is helping. If you are in public, you might feel even more compelled to quiet this storm inside your child, and that combination of pressure and helplessness on both your part and theirs is the perfect brew for you to lose your temper. Who among us hasn’t lost it when their child just would not stop screaming?
The first thing we need to do is forgive ourselves, and then we have to try to understand exactly what is happening inside our child when a tantrum overtakes them.
In “The Science of Parenting: How today’s brain research can help you raise happy, emotionally balanced children,” author Margot Sunderland explains how what a child needs the absolute most in that flurry of emotion is patience and understanding, not time outs. Tantrums, and distress tantrums in particular, are a biological function.
“Distress tantrums happen because essential brain pathways between a child’s higher brain and his lower brain haven’t developed yet,” writes Sunderland. “These brain pathways are necessary to enable a child to manage his big feelings. As a parent, your role is to soothe your child while he experiences the huge hormonal storms in his brain and body.
“If you get angry with a child for having a distress tantrum, he may stop crying, but this may also mean that the fear system in his brain has triggered, overriding his separation system. Or he may simply have shifted into silent crying, which means his level of the stress chemical cortisol will remain sky-high. As we have seen throughout brain research, uncomforted distress can leave a child with toxic levels of stress hormones washing over the brain.”
No one wants his or her child to suffer emotionally, yet we all want to help ease our child out of the tantrum as soon as possible, too. Here are five things you can do to help your child in the heat of the moment:
This is the most important thing you can do and it has nothing to do with your child. It is up to you to set the tone, and it’s vital that you not inflame the already stressful moment with yelling or anger.
Do not walk away to leave all the building emotions toppling over by themselves. You can offer a soothing hug, if they will let you, or you can simply sit next to them, which allows them a certain amount of freedom if they need it. Every child and every tantrum is different. Take their cue.
If the tantrum is centered on wearing a piece of clothing or eating a certain food, calmly offer them an option, instead of demanding them to do as you say. Even very young children need to feel they have some control over their body and wishes.
Read about the science of tantrums even if your child is not currently having them. The more you can understand the biology behind the behavior, the easier it will be to adopt a clear and calm approach when they occur.
Remember that he or she needs you to help him or her calm down. A child’s frontal brain lobes are not yet fully developed. When they are, your child will be able to control their emotions, but right now, they need you to show them the way and be their safe place to fall.
“It is important that you take a genuine distress tantrum seriously and meet your child’s pain of loss, frustration, or acute disappointment with sympathy and understanding,” says Sunderland. “When you do this, you will be helping your child to develop vital stress-regulating systems in his higher brain.”
Danielle Sullivan is a writer living in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @Deewrite.
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