If there is one factor that makes parents think twice about taking their little ones out in public, it’s usually the unpredictable temper tantrum. While in the early days, the subtle defiance and stubbornness of a toddler can make you try to hide your smirk at the manageable balance between cheekiness, compliance and seeking of autonomy – that is still within a comfortable limit – the cuteness seemingly evaporates as the child gets older. As they get bigger and older, we expect more, and yet the temper tantrums quite often get harder to manage and more intense. Once it passes the stage of them looking as though they are still young enough to behave like that in public, the significant ramifications start to set in for the family.
There is no doubt having a child who has frequent emotional outbursts, temper tantrums, and unpredictable behaviour can exert a ripple effect within the whole family. In my experience working within the homes of families who have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intense behavioural challenges, I have seen and experienced first-hand how much it impacts the whole family; the parents, the siblings, and their social networks. Closing in social networks and loss of invitations to social events can be a very real experience for many of such families. With social isolation and loneliness reducing their quality of family life, making the effort to go out more still does not always seem worth it.
We tend to expect two-year-old toddlers to have drop-to-the-floor-back-arching “but I want to” tantrums. It is a socially accepted developmental stage; one that can be so damn cute, especially when it’s not your own child. But how do we cope and respond when a child is getting older, and they are still having full-blown temper tantrums and emotional meltdowns? And why are they continuing to overreact and have out-of-proportionate reactions to small triggers? It’s easy for other people to look at our child in public and think, if that was my child, I could bring them in line with some solid discipline. Maybe that’s true, but probably not. If you have a child who is struggling in this way, you know, it’s not as simple as it may seem to others. So, what can we do as parents to anchor ourselves in the eye of the emotional storm?
First, let’s explore why children – and even adolescents for that matter – continue to have temper tantrums and huge emotional reactions when they seem ‘too old’ for it. Firstly, let’s just take a moment to normalise that we, as adults, do not consistently have our stuff together when it comes to regulating our emotions either. However, it’s even more difficult for children, in part for obvious reasons, but also because of their brain development. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain, right behind the forehead, that houses our executive functioning. We need this executive part to ‘function’ effectively in order to problem-solve, to make good decisions, to inhibit impulsive reactions, to use our moral reasoning skills, to consider the consequences of our behaviour, to draw upon our values and desired outcomes in a situation. When we are reasoning and rationalising with a child, we are placing an expectation on them to be able to effectively draw upon their executive functioning.
The problem with this is that in order to effectively use this function of the brain, we actually need to be in a regulated emotional state. As we are beings that are innately programmed for survival, the limbic-emotional system in the brain governed by the amygdala (aka ‘fear centre’), is biologically prioritised to surpass any good intentions of the prefrontal cortex. That’s why, when in fight-or-flight mode, we cannot draw upon our rational logic and become imminently reactive to our emotions and stress response. Children are particularly sensitive to the “amygdala hijack” as Daniel Goleman coined it, where this part of the emotional-limbic brain takes over and they become emotionally flooded. Being emotionally flooded means that their ability to cope and effectively self-regulate is exceeded by the intensity of their emotions. So yes, it’s difficult for the whole family and social bystanders, but emotional meltdowns and tantrums are also difficult for the child. This also helps us to understand why purely focussing on their behaviour, (i.e., “how many times have I told you…”) is usually ineffective in making long-term sustained positive change.
So, if purely focussing on behaviour management is not the answer – think completely focussing on rewards and consequences or punishments – what are parents to do? As a psychologist, I usually come from three angles when addressing such difficulties with parents. Firstly, it’s important that they better understand the child psychology behind the tantrum and meltdown. This makes it easier to normalise, not take it personally, and also to return to having empathy for the child in a healthy way which includes releasing resentment. This also involves a deeper understanding of the child’s individual traits and differences; their temperamental style, the factors that overstimulate them, particular situations that seem to trigger them, and the exacerbation of strong emotions that accumulate for them. This helps to inform the second angle, which involves having a prevention plan or strategies in place. This can be most accurately designed once there is a good understanding of the environmental factors that impact the particular child – school, sleep, chaos at home, technology, diet and nutrition, their routine etc. Finally, we come to where most parents see as the starting point: what to do and how to manage once a temper tantrum or mega meltdown has already occurred.
With good quality support, once the first two angles have been addressed, the management becomes a lot easier. Yet in the meantime, there are certainly steps that parents can take to embody the eye of the storm. Some of my early academic research showed a pattern that reflected a bidirectional relationship between parent stress, reactivity and challenging child behaviour. That means that the more stressed and reactive a parent is to their child, the more challenging the behaviour becomes, and in turn, worsens the parent’s stress levels. If you feel like you can’t win at the moment, you are probably right. The stress is contagious, which is why it is the parent’s responsibility to break this reactive cycle by managing their own reactions to the stress. Child psychologists talk about the importance of ‘co-regulation’ referring to the parent and child co-regulating their emotions together. However, the parent needs to hold the space for this to occur by ‘dropping anchor’ in the midst of an emotional storm or tantrum. In an effort to make the psych-lingo more digestible, here are some dot points that can help to guide parents through these difficult moments:
- Language is trying to relate to, and reason with, the prefrontal cortex and executive functioning. Remind yourself that when a child is hugely dysregulated, this is an unrealistic and unfair expectation. Like we need evidence that lecturing doesn’t work.
- Remember that their emotional-limbic system has “hijacked” their brain. The monster that is not who they are, may be real. The only intention is to contain and then tame the monster to safety and eventually, regulation.
- Avoid fixating on behaviour control: think, threats, harsh consequences, placing all emphasis on rewards “I’ll give you your iPad if you stop” or punishments, “if you continue, you will not be going to the birthday party this weekend”.
- Drop an anchor in your own body and space when you notice the signs of a meltdown or tantrum approaching. Feel your feet firmly on the floor, effortfully slow down your breath and imagine yourself dropping an anchor between your body and the floor.
- The only language used during the ordeal should focus on the emotional limbic brain. For example, “I can see that you’re getting angry…”, “I know that was really frustrating”, “I’m wondering if we need to take some space to calm down…” etc.
- Avoid the temptation to place the child in long time-outs after a rupture. Some children and parents absolutely benefit from taking a ‘space’ separately to calm down once the emotions have been acknowledged, but it is most important that there is a reconnection and repair that ideally occurs swiftly after the event, once everyone has regulated. More on this to come.
There is always a silver lining when working on these difficulties, even if you want to throw your phone while reading this. Yep, I am going to say it: working through these challenges present an opportunity to deepen your emotional connection with your child. It is a potential opening for emotional intimacy. I know that children – and adolescents – tend to save up their best performances for their primary attachment figures, which can feel both rejecting and exhausting for the parents. Know that this means that they feel safe enough to express their emotions in your presence; you are their security in the world. Although your ego may sometimes, understandably, desire that they express a little less in public, I know that deep down you would never want to take this magic away.
Imagine that your child hid away all of their emotions from you now, and into the future? This is a real, and different challenge that parents experience with children of different temperaments (I will cover more in another article). For now, I encourage you to take a step back to see the higher vision of how messy yet beautiful it is that your child is showing you, their emotions.
Dr Renee Cachia is an Australian–based psychologist in private practice specialising in childhood, adolescent and parenting development. Her first book is Parenting Freedom: Transform Stress and Depletion to Connectedness and Meaning. To connect on socials, follow @reneecachiaphd.