Tantrums and brain development

09 Jan

As children grow and develop so does their sense of identity and self. During the development process they will often test to see actions and reactions, testing power and control over situations and in relationships. This occurs with their siblings, peers and parents. How we respond to those challenges shapes behaviour. The developing brain of a young child is complex and as they are building a range of skills including language, motor skills and social skills they are also trying to understand their emotional world and develop self regulation. Our role is to support them. They will have strong reactions to people and events which are sometimes disproportionate to what has occurred. Frustration, tiredness, annoyance, disappointment and anger can sometimes boil over resulting in a “tantrum” or “meltdown”. As parents how we respond to our child during these situations is important.

When a child is having a tantrum they are feeling out of control and completely unregulated. Whatever the trigger for the tantrum – the message is “I am overwhelmed and not able to deal with my strong feelings”. There have been suggestions that you walk away and ignore the behaviour. Others might respond by putting a child into time out. On occasion and with older children these might be appropriate options. However the brains of toddlers and preschoolers are developing at an exponential rate and it’s hard work developing a range of skills, including emotional regulation. By distancing ourselves from our child during “tantrums” are we sending a message to them that when you are overwhelmed and unregulated, struggling with self control, we cannot accept or tolerate your behaviour and you therefore need to be removed from our sight or our shared space?

If however, we are prepared and able to be non reactive and sit peacefully with a child who is unregulated/out of control an alternative message is being sent, a message that says when you are feeling emotionally over whelmed and have lost control I will be calm and present. I will be regulated and I can sit comfortably with your anger & frustration and when you are done and the tantrum has finished. I will comfort you. I will not give in to your demands but I will acknowledge your feelings and comfort you, supporting you to return to a peaceful, regulated state.

Tantrums are exhausting for all concerned. A colleague of mine once said that if your child is having a tantrum in a public space like a supermarket, we should put traffic cones around them with signs saying “brain development in progress”.