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The science behind tantrums: 6 things every parent should know

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Tantrums are a part of growing up, but often parents can dismiss tantrums as a child misbehaving. However, there is a lot to be said about tantrums that is not well known. We hope that this blog helps you as parents to learn more about the psychology behind a tantrum and better equip you for the next one.

How is a tantrum different from a meltdown?

A tantrum is a result of a child being unhappy about something. Most importantly, a tantrum can be stopped by the child getting what they want or when they realise they are not getting what they want (Sravanti et al., 2018). For example, your child may start crying and stomping if you do not buy them their desired toy.

On the other hand, a meltdown is a result of extreme emotional distress (WebMD, 2020). For example, your child may have trouble concentrating on one task, may feel tired all the time and may show excessive anger or fear without any obvious reason.

How many stages of tantrums are there?

There are three main stages of tantrums, ranging from emotional to behavioural responses (Sravanti et al., 2018).

  1. Yelling: the initial stage of a tantrum consists of children being unable to express their emotions rationally so they may shout to communicate their demands.

  2. Stomping and physical responses: this stage consists of physical actions to emphasise the emotional response; for example, “I will throw my snack on the floor!”

  3. Crying and whining: the last stage is when the child becomes tired and knows their needs are not going to be met.

What is the science behind a tantrum?

Research shows that the amygdala, hypothalamus and prefrontal cortex are involved in tantrums (Sravanti et al., 2018). In the brain, the amygdala is associated with emotions, such as anger. The hypothalamus maintains stability in the body, such as regulating temperature and heart rate. Finally, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher cognitive functions, such as emotional regulation and empathy.

Specifically, the main cause of a tantrum is believed to be a result of the functioning of prefrontal cortex that is still in the process of development in young children (Sravanti et al., 2018). What this means is that children find it difficult to regulate their emotions when faced with hardships. Fortunately, however, this also means that the frequency of tantrums decreases as the child’s brain (specifically their prefrontal cortex) matures overtime!

6 key things to remember about tantrums:

1. Disregard the tantrum, not the child:

It is crucial that parents understand the difference between the tantrum and the child (Sravanti et al., 2018). For instance, it is good practice to ignore your child’s unreasonable demands but also to comfort and provide alternatives when the child has cooled off. However, ignoring your child can be dangerous as they can physically harm themselves while throwing a tantrum and, in the long term, will not learn what is the appropriate way to express their emotions. Instead, it is good practice to reinforce acceptable methods of emotional expression (such as verbal emotional expressions: “I am sad that I …” or “I am annoyed that…”) as this will teach your child to effectively communicate their feelings. Also, it is important to help your child to label their emotions: “I see you are frustrated that we have to give another child a turn on the swing.”

2. Negotiating is key:

The key to peacefully resolving a tantrum is to negotiate with your child. Although your child’s demands may be unreasonable, you need to be flexible and provide alternatives. For instance, let's imagine your child wants to go on a ride that is not suitable for them. Rather than just telling them they can't go on the ride, the most suitable way forward would be to offer alternative rides or activities. This not only neutralises the situation quicker, but also you are modelling how to appropriately express desires to your child.

3. Identify and monitor triggers:

Timing is key when it comes to tantrums. By making a note of things that trigger your child and intervening early, you can deter a lot of future tantrums or at least reduce the chance of full-blown ones (Sravanti et al., 2018). Once again, early interventions by parents teaches the child what the appropriate way of expressing emotions are. This can help the child develop good emotional intelligence (the ability to understand, manage, and express one's emotions) early on in life. Understanding their emotions will ultimately help them in the future and can help them build strong and long-lasting relationships (Moore, 2021).

4. Understanding your own emotions:

Often overlooked is parents' own emotions during tantrums. During a tantrum it can be easy to reflect your emotions onto the child and this can make the situation worse. In order for you to help cool off your child and to teach them how to express their emotions, it’s essential that you as the parent need to be in touch with your emotions (Moore, 2021). Understandably, this is easier said than done and is a long and sometimes difficult process. However, there are resources out there that can help! We at Fatherli recommend “The Good Enough Parent” by The School of Life as a good parenting guide on how to deal with bad behaviour and self expression among other things related to parenting.

5. Helping your child understand their emotions:

It can be difficult to help your child understand and express their emotions, particularly from a young age. One effective method to do this is through reading books with them and making sure that they understand that emotions are a part of life and there is nothing wrong with experiencing or expressing emotions. Moore (2021) explains that while reading a book, it is good to discuss the characters' emotions with young children as it helps them gain a broader understanding of different emotions. Through regular reading sessions, your child will be able to put into words their emotions rather than throwing a tantrum.

Here are a couple of children’s books that address emotions that Moore (2021) recommends to help your child express their emotions:

6. When is a tantrum a tantrum and not something more?

Having a couple of tantrums between the ages of 1 to 8 years is normal. Overtime, as a young child grows, tantrums become more goal-oriented and have more purpose. Although, if your child is throwing tantrums often and over trivial reasons (this is also known as “rages” rather than tantrums), it could be an early indication of an underlying condition, such as: autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and other developmental disabilities. Similarly, it could also be a sign that your child may be distressed over something and may be experiencing some emotional turmoil (Sravanti et al., 2018). If this is the case, it would be wise to see a child psychologist or visit your local GP to uncover the underlying reason of your child’s excessive tantrum.

These were our 6 practical pieces of advice to help you navigate through your child’s tantrums. Hopefully you feel more equipped to deal with the next one now that you know more about tantrums!

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