Dubai: What exactly is going on inside that little brain of yours as you flail your arms and legs just because you were told you couldn’t wear a party dress to the beach?
“I want to be a princess!”
“But we’re going to the beach!”
“But I want to be a princess!”
And so a tantrum unfolds.
The situations can be different, but every time I see my toddler throwing a tantrum, I find myself asking this question: What exactly is going on inside that little brain of yours? Experts say tantrums start cropping up as a child turns two – the so-called ‘terrible twos’. My daughter, who recently turned three, seems to be proving the expert opinion quite right. From an angry and forceful ‘No!’ to just throwing herself on the ground like she’s given up on the world, I’ve seen those tantrums in all shapes and sizes.
A threat response
But more than an act of willful insolence, tantrums are, in fact, a physiological response connected to the natural threat detection system involving our brain and body, according to Dr Sreenivasan Vazhoor Ramsingh, Specialist Psychiatrist at Ahalia Hospital, Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News.
“Tantrums are more common in children aged one and a half to five years, occurring on an average of once a day and lasting for less than five minutes. The main reason that it is more common in younger children is because their prefrontal cortex is still in a developing stage,” Dr Ramsingh said.
It is this prefrontal cortex that is essential in exercising impulse control. With this part of the brain still developing in children up to the age of five, it is the older limbic system, which takes control. In particular, there are two parts of the brain that are in charge – the almond-shaped amygdala, which is primarily responsible for processing emotions like fear or anger; and the hypothalamus, which in part controls unconscious functions like heart rate or temperature, and triggers hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. And these two are a tag team. As the amygdala senses fear, the hypothalamus is hardwired to generate a physiological reaction – which is what you see on display during a temper tantrum.
The main reason that tantrums are more common in younger children is because their prefrontal cortex is still in a developing stage.
– Dr Sreenivasan Vazhoor Ramsingh, Specialist Psychiatrist at Ahalia Hospital, Abu Dhabi
What can make matters worse is when a parent loses his or her cool, too. This is when the child’s physiological responses, which have already been triggered, are likely to get exaggerated, according to Dr Ramsingh. On the other hand, if you thought being too empathetic would do the trick, think again.
“There are other parents who try to console the child or give in to the child’s desire in the hope of terminating a tantrum. However, this is more likely to reinforce the behaviour as the child associates the tantrum with a positive outcome,” Dr Ramsingh said.
So, you can’t lose your cool, and neither can you try to placate a child beyond reason. What, then, is a parent to do?
1. Step back
Therese Sequeira, a certified positive parenting practitioner, and Parent Educator at Abu Dhabi-based kidsFIRST medical center, spoke about how parents should always consider the context of a tantrum. “The child is not getting their way and this is how they express it. We have to look at what has built up to this stage,” Sequeira told Gulf News.
Understanding the context can help parents take more pre-emptive measures to avoid reaching the stage of a meltdown. It is also important to understand that with limited vocabulary, children can only express emotions by acting them out.
“Tantrums are usually thrown by children from about two to four years of age. As they get older, their vocabulary increases, so they are able to articulate and express it,” she said.
2. Reinforce desirable behaviour
For you to be able to manage an ongoing tantrum well, you need to have consistently worked towards acknowledging and rewarding good behaviour in the past.
“Quite often parents complain that their child is throwing a tantrum very regularly, but when I ask them what are the things that the child does well, they might take some time to think about it,” she said.
Instead, Sequeira recommended, that parents should “catch kids being good”. So, when a child does something simple that is a desirable behaviour for you, like putting their shoes away, or coming to the kitchen for lunch or dinner when called, acknowledge it so that they know that they are getting attention. This will reduce the chances of the child throwing a tantrum just to get their parent’s attention.
The acknowledgement could be in the form of you saying, “Thank you for coming to the kitchen when I called,” or simply smiling, nodding or giving the child a thumbs up when they behave well.
3. Respond earlier
It is also important for a parent to respond when a child is trying to initially communicate what they want.
“Has the child already tried to communicate what they want? Does he or she have the words to communicate what they want? Parents know their kids well, so they would know if the child is pointing towards something and making a sound, they can understand what the child is trying to communicate. If the parent does not respond to these actions, you can see the frustration levels rise,” Sequiera said.
4. Allow them to work through their feelings
Sequiera asked parents to look at tantrums as a means for a child to act out what they are feeling, as they are unable to express their emotions verbally at that age. Instead of asking them to put a lid on their feelings by asking them to stop throwing a tantrum, help them work their way through it.
“You have to understand that there is a physiological component to this behaviour, you can’t just ask them to put a lid on it, as the feelings have taken over. Allow them to work through those feelings. Then when they are calm, praise them for calming down and then ask – ‘Can you please tell me through words what you were feeling and why?’,” she said.
Planned ignoring is the hardest thing to do. It includes no eye contact, no talking. If they start screaming, pretend like it’s not happening. But you have to make sure it is in a safe environment like a home.
– Therese Sequeira, Parent Educator, kidsFIRST Medical Centre
5. Do not offer negative attention
Sequiera also had a word of advice for parents when dealing with tantrums – the more you engage with the tantrum, the more you are reinforcing negative behaviour.
Instead, she advised parents to ignore the tantrum and – if possible to do so safely – let the child act out their emotions, something that is referred to as planned ignoring.
“Planned ignoring is the hardest thing to do. It includes no eye contact, no talking. If they start screaming, pretend like it’s not happening. But you have to make sure it is in a safe environment like a home. We know ignoring works when the behaviour stops. If the behaviour gets worse, and hurtful in some way – through hurtful words or actions – we know that it didn’t work. That is when you give a ‘stop instruction’,” she said.
6. Stop instruction
When asking a child to stop their tantrum, there are two steps that a parent needs to take. First, highlight the undesirable behaviour, and then, more importantly, give them a replacement behaviour.
“Look at the child, say their name, and tell them: ‘You are yelling at me. Please use your talking voice.’ The second part of this is important because if not, you are assuming that the child will find an alternative behaviour on their own,” she said.
But the most important secret to an effective stop instruction is to not repeat your instructions.
“We say it only once,” Sequeira said.
But what if you’ve said it that one time and the tantrum doesn’t really stop? It’s time to let them work through their feelings in a safe space.
7. Create a circuit breaker
If the behaviour escalates to a level that is out of your control, children need to be allowed to calm down safely, and reset.
By taking them to their bedroom, or the sofa, give them space to go through those feelings, in a safe environment. Walk them through their feelings as well as the desirable behaviour, but be assertive.
“Always be calm and assertive. It is beneficial for everybody. We do a better job as parents when we are calm,” Sequeira said.