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Tantrums! Mini-masterclass

What are tantrums? What does a meltdown look and feel like? Why does it happen? How can we understand it better?

If you want some answers to any of the above .... read on.Not a parent? ...doesnt away!

Meltdowns are an involuntary emotional response to sensory overload. They are different from tantrums, which usually have a purpose, and are a response to not getting or being able to do what they (children) want.

When having a meltdown, your child will be looking to you to help them regain control of their feelings.

Tantrums and meltdowns are not clinical terms, and many parents think of meltdowns as more extreme versions of tantrums.  

Indeed, tantrums and meltdowns are among the biggest challenges of parenting. They are hard to understand, hard to prevent, and even harder to respond to effectively when they’re happening.

Many parents aren’t sure how to help their children when they have a tantrum or a meltdown. It’s common to give kids what they want to stop their tantrums, like giving a child a toy to get them to stop crying. But that response teaches the child that they can get toys by crying, so they are more likely to have more tantrums. Instead, it’s helpful to look for the triggers that cause your child to act out.

Whether mild or severe, tantrums are symptoms that a child is struggling with emotions that he/she cannot regulate. Anger is the prime emotion that causes children to lose their heads and blow up—think of it as the kid version of road rage.

The child feels he/she deserves or needs something that is being deliberately withheld from him/her—the cookie, the video game, something she covets at the toy store—and is overwhelmed by her frustration and sense of injustice.

Tantrums and meltdowns are like fevers—they can be triggered by so many different problems that we can’t make them stop until we understand what’s triggering them.

Routine expectations for a child (such as bedtime, going to school, participating in team sports) may seem to you like they should be mild stressors, but they can be experienced as major ones by anxious children.

In neurological terms, when your child is having a meltdown, they are experiencing an “amygdala hijack.” At this time, parents must realise to calm themselves in order to help their children calm themselves.Imagine it like in an airplane emergency, the oxygen bag needs to first go to the parent so that they can then optimally help their child.This is sometimes where even rational and intelligent parents fall into the trap of doing all the wrong things.

Let me explain this a little differently so you can gain better insight.

In a child,amygdala (it’s job is to process emotions like fear or anger) acts like the brain’s smoke detector searching for a ‘threat’ and a threat can be anything from - end of watching their favourite television program,end of playtime,time to do homework or time to go to school or participate in something they don’t like.. list is endless.

Then there is the hypothalamus (which controls heart rate or temperature etc),a part of the brain that just sits on the fence (imaginary of course) acting like a judge trying to make a decision and its next move.It’s job is to decide what to do once a threat is picked up by the amygdala. It can either extinguish the fire with water or it can throw fuel onto the fire to create havoc with hormones like cortisol & adrenaline.

Once a threat is detected by the amygdala,the hypothalamus causes the child to snap!

She/he is not consciously being difficult.

During a stress response,this is why your child will have sweaty palms,racing heartbeat,tense muscles (or an overwhelming urge to punch you!)

This stress response can dampen the already limited capacity for self-control in children,a function generally associated with the PFC (pre-frontal cortex) of their brain.

Remember that the PFC is the part of the brain that deals with reasoning,rationalising and mature evolved behaviour.
Eg;when a driver cuts you off on a motorway or highway and you begin to feel the rage come on,it is this PFC that steps in to make you realise that ‘you don’t have to respond to anger … with anger’.
PFC deals with inhibition & impulse control.
It is vital to remember that the PFC part of the brain is not fully developed until adulthood.
“So when you try to reason with a child (especially during a stress response) ~ you are appealing to a part of their brain that is not fully functional! “

Sometimes,just this understanding itself is enough to help parents alter their response to their child’s tantrums & meltdowns.

Some of the things that do help in a situation where a child is experiencing a meltdown :

  1. Do not try to reason with them or expect them to change their behaviour - for them it’s like their house is on fire and all you have to do is provide a space of safety by just sitting with them until this wave passes.

  2. Get down to their eye level.Young children feel intimidated when adults stand.During a stress response,bring yourself down to their level so that they can quickly feel safe.

  3. If they will let you and it is safe for you to do so - give them a pressured cuddle.Allow them to feel the extra squeeze - this has a grounding effect on them creating a feeling of control and safety in their mind.

  4. Identify triggers and help them with whatever comes up - after they have settled. You can use your adult brain (fully developed PFC) to help put a lid on their boiling pot!

  5. Remind yourself that what your child may experience is not your fault.

  6. If it is overwhelming for you, recognise the need to ask for help.

I leave you with this beautiful poem

by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children,

they are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.

They come through you, but not from you.

And though they are with you, yet they belong, not to you.

You may give them your love, but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies, but not their souls.

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them. But seek not to make them like you for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

And he bends you with his might,

that his arrows may go swift and far.

Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies,so he loves also the bow, that is stable.

Until next time.

With love & gratitude,



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