Parents’ Nightmare; the Tantrum
There has not been a parent I have spoken to both personally and professionally who has not experienced a tantrum from their child. That moment tears come, volume increases, flopping to floor, demands, throwing things, stomping their feet and any combination of behaviours can feel like you’re in a nightmare. And even worse, this happens in public! I would also like to go insofar to say that even if you do not have children of your own, you’ve seen or experienced a tantrum.
A couple options are presented to us when our child is having a tantrum. First, as many might have heard, we can ignore it. By giving attention to the behaviours we are giving them power. The second I often run into, is parents trying to use reason with their child, either by way of trying to negotiate or threatening consequences. Then, with my therapist hat on I must ask, how is that all working for you? Are the tantrums becoming less frequent, less intense or stopping? Going out on a limb here, I am going to guess sometimes this works and other times it backfires.
Let’s spend a moment expanding our thinking about tantrums. And by this, I mean lets define the two types of tantrums children have. By understanding brain function we know that there is one tantrum that stems from the cortex region of the brain (which is responsible for higher order thinking). This is when the child has some control of themselves and chooses to have a fit. These are the times when you tried the negotiating or consequence threats and the behaviour stops. You think great! Except not great if you choose to negotiate. What has happened here, is teaching the child if I have a fit then I will get what I want. This will grow the number of tantrums happening calling this a learned behaviour. If they stopped due to you putting in place boundaries then yes! Great! You’ve begun teaching them to live within boundaries and to think about their behaviour.
Then there is the second type of tantrum. This is when no matter what you’re saying or doing its not stopping; getting worse even. These tantrums tend to be driven from the lower limbic region of the brain. This area of the brain is responsible for survival and stress hormones have flooded your child. There is no access to the thinking region of your child’s brain at this point. In these moments, children need nurture and validation to comfort their survival brain in order to reintegrate the thinking brain. Only after you have connected with your child emotionally and helped them calm down can you use logic and reason to discuss appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. This is an opportunity to review the situation with your child and hear from them what their need and perspective is on the situation. From there you can discuss alternate ways for them to meet this desire in a healthy way. And then what you have done here is created a learning moment for them. Furthermore, in this situation creating a win-win solution by inviting their input into the discussion you’re offering them a chance to practice problem solving.
So next time you are in a tantrum situation ask yourself; is this a thinking tantrum or a survival tantrum? And see if you approach each differently if the longer-term outcomes change in your favor.