When toddlers start to assert themselves from around the age of 18months it can be challenging and emotionally draining guiding them through all the ups and downs that this age brings. Even when we are doing our best to be loving parents our children still have moments of testing our boundaries. And this is normal behaviour, and should be expected. However, it can be hard to know how best to deal with tantrums when they arise.
Our tempers can also easily rise when we feel a direct challenge to our authority. And when faced with an act of defiance it seems the sensible option is to put the child in time out or send them to their room to calm down. We can’t reason with a howling tantrum after all, so time out can seem like the only option.
Dealing with tantrums by putting children in time out will eventually calm them down, however it will also send some messages:
-No one is here to find out the reason I am upset.
-Being angry is bad.
-You don’t know how to help me and I’m being asked to work it out on my own.
-It’s best that I swallow my feelings of anger even though this will mean that the unaddressed problem will cause my anger to burst out again.
What’s happening in the child’s brain during a tantrum?
It is important to remember that until the age of seven, a child’s brain is undergoing rapid growth and the frontal lobe that controls reasoning and reflection is very immature. This part of the brain needs emotionally responsible parenting for the child to develop the ability to cope well with stress in later life, be compassionate, have meaningful relationships and manage anger well.
With the amazing advances in neuroscience, we are learning more and more about how a brain is shaped. We know now for example that 20 billion neurons are connected to an average of 10,000 other neurons, creating an amazing web of synapses. Although some pathways are developed pre-birth, the majority are formed by experiences in the first three years, which is why parenting has such a huge impact on child development and the person they grow up to be.
How can you help your child during a tantrum?
Children learn through mirroring and their neural pathways will form according to how you interact with them. You have the power to shape their brain. Although their nature and personality type come into it, you as a parent still have a huge influence over how they react to situations and their coping skills.
Time out is actually one of the most effective ways to deal with tantrums. Although in the heat of the moment exclusion can feel most appropriate, at the end of the day you’re dealing with very immature brains that do not have the capacity for reflection.
Time out will not encourage your child to manage their anger responsibly nor will it solve the underlying problem lurking under the surface that they are too immature to express without adult help. The child may in time learn to swallow their feelings and give the impression that time out is working, but this is likely to cause anger issues that last into adulthood. So what is a better way to deal with tantrums?
What time-in techniques can I use to deal with tantrums?
2) Name their feelings
3) Re-direct their attention
4) Have clear boundaries
Instead, it is more useful to connect and attune to your child, teaching them how to express themselves in a more acceptable and appropriate way.
Start with Connection: A naughty child is communicating a need that has not been met for them, whether it be a lack of boundaries, not feeling heard, not having enough attention, not having enough control of their lives etc. Affection and kind words will sooth the child, allowing the higher brain to engage for a further discussion around consequences.
Name their feelings: This instantly calms a child as they feel heard and understood. Because their higher (cortex) rational brains are so underdeveloped and they are using their lower (mammalian and reptilian) brains, strong emotions are easily triggered, flooding their brain with stress hormones. By asking them how they feel and naming their emotion, their frustration and stress levels will fall, enabling them to listen to you. When a child, or adult at that matter, is stressed it is very hard for the brain to register what is being said or asked of them.
Ignore attention-seeking behaviour and re-direct. If unwanted behaviours are continuously met with an angry outburst from the parents, the child will learn that they get a reaction from that behaviour. Respond to provocative behaviour in a calm matter-of-fact manner without engaging with them so that it has as little impact as possible. Later address what the child might be needing more of.
Boundary setting: This is key in helping to make the child feel safe in the world. They need boundaries and assertive discipline so that they feel the parents are in control. A child with too much control and not enough boundaries will feel overwhelmed and can be quite a scary experience.
Going through the process of calmly empathising with their strong emotion, connecting with them so that their higher brain can engage and then talking through their options and consequences of their actions will allow them to develop far more emotional intelligence.
For further information on how to deal with tantrums, watch these videos by leading psychologists to find out more about the child’s brain.
Learn more about positive discipline techniques
A child’s brain: