There is nothing I love more than a good tantrum. Seriously. Some people like to watch thunderstorms from their front porch, or cat videos on YouTube. Not me. I love a good ol' fashioned melt-down. (As long as it's not my child, of course.) I was out to lunch with a friend the other day, and she called me out on completely ignoring her to watch this mother daughter duo have it out in the middle of the restaurant. The toddler ran across the dinning room away from her mom twice. It was awesome. I even follow an Instagram account called @assholeparents that is dedicated to posting children having tantrums over ridiculous things like a boy's mom giving him the blue bowl instead of his sister's pink one, or a couple of parents not letting their daughter have birthday presents, when it wasn't her birthday. I highly recommend you follow the account so that us parents can bond over the absurdity of our children.
And that's exactly the point. Tantrums, more often than not, make no sense, begin out of nowhere and over nothing, and, when met with logical reasoning, only seem to escalate. Last year, when I was working as a behavior interventionist, it was my sole job to understand the tantrums of five and six-year-olds, and to try to prevent their reoccurence. I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea there was so much neuroscience behind tantrums, and I wish I knew then what I have recently learned. In The Whole-Brain Child, authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson do an amazing job of explaining the brain science behind tantrums. The authors write that there are two specific types of tantrums that come from two different regions of the brain, not to be confused with the two different hemispheres of the brain, which are also extremely important to understanding tantrums. I'll explain...
First, your brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and right, and they function completely differently, and, sometimes, separately. The left hemisphere is logical, literal, linguistic and linear, while the right brain is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving communication signals such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture and gestures (Siegel & Bryson, p. 16). The left brain is logical, and the right brain is emotional. In the first three years of life, children are very much right brain dominant because the left side of the brain actually hasn't fully developed yet. When children start asking "Why?" they are building linear cause-and-effect relationships, making sense of their world, which develops the left side of the brain (p. 16). The two hemispheres serve very different functions so that we can carry out sophisticated tasks, and achieve more complex goals, but we need both sides to work symbiotically to have balanced experiences.
Therefore, when the "right brain", or emotions, take over the brain, as it so often does with children, Siegel and Bryson recommend that you "connect, then redirect". Connect to the right side of the brain (the emotional side) using a soothing voice to acknowledge feelings, nonverbal signals like physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, and non-judgemental listening (p. 24). Once that connection is made, only then, begin to redirect with logic. Picture this: your child gets in the car after school and says, "you didn't pack any dessert in my lunchbox today, and you never write me notes anymore." A logical adult response would be, "actually, Fig Newtons are dessert, and I did put those in your lunchbox, and I wrote you a note on Monday, so don't say I never write you notes." But, remember, the logical part of his brain is not fully developed, and is clearly not working right now. This child is in a right-brain, non-rational, emotional flood, and a left-brain-logical-adult response would be a lose-lose approach. A right-to-right brain response would be, "Aw, man sounds like you had a bad lunch. That stinks. I hope your day got better after that. How was the rest of your day?" Then, after the right brain connection is made, appeal to the left, logical, brain by saying, "hey buddy, mommy's been really busy lately, do you think you can help me tonight when I'm packing your lunch? That way you can be sure I pack a dessert, and remind me to write you a note, too." It may seem like soft parenting, but the authors say, "this doesn't mean letting yourself be manipulated or reinforcing bad behavior. On the contrary, by understanding how your child's brain works, you can create cooperation much more quickly and often with far less drama (p. 23). And, I am all about the no-drama.
Next, your brain also has two regions, the "upstairs and downstairs". Siegel and Bryson recommend imagining a house where the downstairs part of the brain is more like a basement, but upstairs is a light-filled second-story study full of windows and skylights that allows you to see things more clearly (p. 40). The upstairs part of the brain is much more sophisticated than its downstairs partner, and takes care of things like strategic thinking, imagining and planning. The upstairs contains a part of the brain called the middle prefrontal cortex that is solely responsible for executive function and self-regulation, and like the left hemisphere of the brain, it is not developed at birth, and does not fully develop until people reach their mid-twenties (p. 41). The "downstairs brain" is more primitive, and is responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), innate reactions (like fight of flight) and for strong emotions (like anger and fear). It is fully developed and functional at birth, allowing babies to cry when they're hungry, tired or in pain. It also contains the amygdala (pronounced: uh-MIG-duh-luh) that has the job of quickly processing and expressing emotions like anger and fear (p. 42). The amygdala serves as the brain's watchdog, always alert for times we might be threatened, and when it does sense danger it completely takes over the upstairs part of the brain. You know that old saying, "think before you act"? Well, the amygdala does exactly the opposite; it goes straight into "fight or flight" mode without allowing the upstairs brain to weigh in on whether its a good idea, or not. Of course if a child touches something hot, or is being chased by a wild boar, the amygdala is a great friend to have, but acting before thinking isn't usually good in normal, every day situations, and the amygdala doesn't know the difference.
Finally, there are two types of tantrums, an upstairs and downstairs tantrum. An "upstairs" tantrum is when a child is choosing to terrorize you. You can tell this type of tantrum because, no matter how ridiculously out-of-control she seems, if your child is negotiating or arguing with you, trying to manipulate or convince you, she is using her upstairs brain. She is physically able to control her emotions and body, to be logical, and make good decisions (thanks, left hemisphere). In this case, the authors recommend: never, ever negotiate with a terrorist (p. 45). This calls for firm boundaries, and a clear discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In addition, (I can't stress enough) the importance of follow through, which first means don't make empty promises or threats in which you can't follow through. Then, if the behavior persists, carry out the consequence. Last year, when I was working as a behavior interventionist, I remember one parent said, "when we get home I am taking all your video games away from you, and throwing them in the trash!", and his five-year-old son looked at him square in the eye, laughed, and said, "No you won't because they cost you too much money." Good point, kid. Be sure the consequence can be carried out, and is, if necessary. For example, "I understand, dear, that you want those princess slippers, but you are not asking for them in an appropriate way. Also, you don't get everything you want. So, here's the deal: if you don't stop then I will cancel your playdate this afternoon because you are showing me you just don't know how to handle yourself today." At this point you can choose if you want to give ten seconds for the behavior to stop, if you want to give her three chances, or, (my personal favorite option) if one more word comes out of that little princess's mouth, then, boom, playdate cancelled. End of story.
"Downstairs brain" tantrums, however, are a whole different ballgame. This is when a child becomes so angry that he begins screaming, kicking, hitting, throwing things, you name it. We've all seen it. In this case, the amygdala has hijacked the his "upstairs brain", and the stress hormones flooding his little body mean that virtually no part of his higher brain is fully functioning (p. 46). When you tell your friends about it later, and say, "he lost his mind", you're actually very neurologically accurate because half of his brain isn't working (p. 46). He is literally incapable of controlling his body or emotions, and using all of those higher-order thinking skills like considering consequences, solving problems, or considering others' feelings (p. 46). In this case, as much as is pains you, you must "connect, then redirect", as mentioned above. You must connect to the right side of the brain's emotional needs in order to shrink the amygdala monster that has taken over your child. You can connect by remaining calm, providing a loving touch, and a soothing tone of voice. If he has escalated to the point of hurting himself or others, you may have to hold him closely, and talk or sing calmly to him, as you remove him from the situation. Once the amygdala monster is tame, you can begin to use logic and reasoning again. Your discipline can now maintain your authority, which is crucial, according to the authors, but you can do so from an informed and compassionate position (p. 47).
As I discussed in a previous post about tantrums (click here to access), if your child is having a lot of "downstairs brain" melt-downs, practicing calming strategies is a great idea. However, calming techniques such as counting to ten or taking long, deep breaths, only work if they they are practiced when the child is calm. The reason for this is that these calming strategies are stored in the "upstairs brain" in the prefrontal cortex area where executive function and self-regulation exist, but, remember, that part of the brain is shut off when the amygdala takes over. But, as Walter Mischel explains in his book The Marshmallow Test, by forming and practicing implementation plans, you can make your "downstairs brain" reflexively trigger a desired response whenever the cue occurs. You can trick the lower brain into reflexively and unconsciously doing the work for you. The lower brain then lets you automatically act out the script you want when you need it while your "upstairs brain" rests, but unless you incorporate the resistance plan into the lower brain, it is unlikely to be activated when you need it most (Mischel, p. 68).
Unfortunately, children don't grow out of the terrible-twos on their third birthday. As stated above, the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until our mid-twenties, but develops significantly between birth and the end of the third year of life. Also, our watchdog amygdala friend never goes away. When we do find ourselves in a dangerous situation, it is always there, ready to protect us by sending our body into fight or flight mode. When we don't need it, we can help our kids respond wisely by training them to enact calming strategies when they are not actually in danger in order to shrink the amygdala, and engage the upstairs brain's self-regulation. Below I have provided some great videos for children to practice calming strategies.
Confession: My husband and I are both very left brain dominant. So when our eight-month-old daughter starts crying and flailing her body for no good reason, it is, of course, infuriating. We're like, "What happened? Has she eaten? How much? How's her diaper? How long did she nap? When? Where? Why is this happening?!" Then, when we resolve to simply holding her warmly and talking to her calmly, as all my research says. And, that doesn't even work sometimes, so we have already set her in the middle of our bed, and just let her flail while we look at each other dumb-founded. This parenting stuff is hard. But, having a basic knowledge of our child's brain, and understanding that it isn't developed, and, therefore, simply doesn't yet work the way ours do, is helpful, and allows us to at least try to parent from a compassionate, informed place. And, if you need a support group, please follow @assholeparents on Instagram.
This video is appropriate for 3rd and 4th grade children.
This video is appropriate for K - 2nd grade children.
This video is appropriate for two - five-year-old children.
For more calming videos click here.