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Rage Against the Mom

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The dreaded tantrum. If you want to know how to divert, contain, or stop one in its tracks, you’ll find no shortage of advice. I’ve written plenty of how-tos for moms and dads to handle little-kid meltdowns.

It’s with good reason that tantrum tips abound. No one likes to drag a flailing, arched-back toddler from the swingset, dodge a flying Duplo block after turning off the television, or listen to an angst-ridden child moan about not having a friend over.

But what if we’re thinking about tantrums the wrong way? What if, while we’re busy fearing, avoiding, and stemming kid freak-outs, we miss a big opportunity to use them to our children’s (and our own) benefit?  Maybe if we change our frame of thinking about tantrums, we can work through them — and come out the other end not just intact, but stronger. Here’s how:

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Dealing with the “do it myself!” stage
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The 5 stages of a tantrum
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Understand the brain

Tantrums aren’t just dramatic, dig-in-your-heels moments for your child to try and get what she wants. They are outward behavioral manifestations of a real biological phenomenon. A true meltdown, not a faked tear fest (you’re probably pretty good at reading your child’s body language and spotting the difference) happens when something triggers areas of your little one’s brain like the amygdala — a small region of the lower brain that processes emotions like fear and anger. The amygdala is an evolutionarily “old,” or primitive, region that keeps us safe by scanning for danger and threats and acting quickly (before the higher brain can think). Little kids have well-formed amygdalas, but they’re still developing the higher, rational brain and connecting these two areas together. When your three-year-old explodes because you took off the yogurt lid instead of letting “me do it!,” her emotional brain — her knee-jerk anger — has overwhelmed her thinking brain. When you understand the biological underpinnings of a tantrum, you see how normal they are, and it gives you a place to start when you’re trying to help.

Ignore tantrum advice

You’ve probably heard the advice to ignore your child’s tantrums. Sure, this may work to quell them (although for some kids, it has the opposite effect). But our job as parents is not just to make tantrums go away in the moment, it’s to help our kids develop the skills and brain mechanisms to manage them in the future. That work happens both during and after a tantrum, so ignoring it won’t help in the long run. Some kids do need space to calm down, but it’s best to work with them first before you turn your back.

A lot of experts will tell you that since a child’s rational brain isn’t fully formed, she can’t help but get emotionally flooded — it’s just a fact of life. This may be why some people argue you should ignore a tantrum-ing kid, since there’s nothing you can do about her explosions. Instead, we should appreciate that our kids are rational-brain-challenged but also hold them to a high standard so we can help them learn. They’re capable little human beings, and the more we treat them this way, the more they rise to the occasion. Using the tips below, try to stay present when your child is in meltdown mode.

Connecting and strengthening the brain

Through practice, the sophisticated rational brain, located in part within the middle prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead), strengthens and reaches out to the lower brain to calm and manage those messy, larger-than-life feelings. Ideally, information flows both ways between these regions, with the raw emotions getting their airtime (you don’t want your child to suppress her feelings) but also being kept in check by the higher regions. Parents can help with this practice. Here are some ideas for harnessing the power of a tantrum:

  • Know who you’re talking to: When your child is truly melting down, this is not the time to try talking sense into her. Forget rational explanations. Speak to her emotional brain: “Oh, man, you are really upset about that!” Or, “I see you’re angry, wow!” For further reading about how to connect with your child in this way, you might want to look at Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block.
  • Engage the rational brain: After you’ve validated your kid’s big feelings and her amygdala is cooling, help her lower and upper brain connect and talk to each other by engaging the rational brain. Try, “Do you want to make a plan for when we could eat that cookie later?” or, “I see you’re super sad about leaving. We have to pick up your sister. What’s a way to solve this problem?” In The Whole Brain Child, this is what Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson call “vertical integration”: strengthening the pathways between the upper and lower brain regions.
  • Keep it short: Don’t over-talk or over-explain. Show some empathy or comfort your child, give a rational explanation or make a plan if possible, and then move on. Change the topic for the time being (come back to it later if you want to explain something or tie up a loose end). Helping your child through an emotional mess means staying calm yourself and not getting pulled into the whirlwind. At this point you could direct your attention away from her if she needs space.
  • Empower your kid: Give her tools to manage her feelings. Practice taking a deep breath, tell her that she can “step back, breathe, and try again,” or find out whether running around a bit helps organize her thoughts and feelings so she can come back into balance again. Don’t just suggest these tactics, talk about them after the storm has passed. Make it a normal part of conversation to reflect on how we all get overwhelmed by our feelings (give some examples and coping strategies from your own life) and what we can do to work on it in the moment.

Rationalize just a bit: When you see all this drama unfolding before your eyes, picture the haywire neurochemical situation underneath and try to distance yourself — just slightly. You don’t want to check out, but rationalizing that this is normal and mentally noting the biology can make it easier for you to withstand your child’s tears and help her out. These emotional states come and go. It’s not your job to fix them or make them go away. Just witness them and take the opportunity to use them as a teachable moment when you can.

Remember, your goal isn’t to make tantrums magically disappear, but the more practice your child has at connecting her emotional and rational brain, the stronger her ability to self-regulate. In other words, tantrums are good practice. If you make it a regular part of your day to talk about tools to handle big feelings, she’ll become her own expert at this, and you’ll see tantrums slowly decrease in intensity. You may always feel a bit exasperated when your child breaks into tears, but think of it as a mental workout that will benefit her in the long run — and eventually make your life easier too.

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