There is a Scientific reason for child tantrums?

Imagine, your child, or any little one, frustrated, yelling, screaming, dropping to the floor and roll around thrashing their arms, often kicking or hitting if you come close to help calm or stop the tantrum. There is a scientific reason for the child’s tantrum. 

Nothing works, your child continues to tantrum, perhaps even escalating when you try to calm them or intervene. If you later ask your child what had made them so mad, they usually respond with an ‘I don’t know’. 

Meltdowns in young children are a common yet complicated physiological response related to the brain’s threat detection system. Midfreakout, it’s helpful for parents to understand what’s going on beneath the surface, then to mitigate the “threat” by establishing a sense of safety.

The scientific reason behind a child’s tantrum

According to Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist and author of “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain,” a child’s temper tantrum involves two parts of the brain. The amygdala processes emotions like fear or anger, while the hypothalamus partly controls unconscious functions like heart rate or temperature. Think of the amygdala as the brain’s smoke detector and the hypothalamus as someone deciding whether to put gasoline or water on the fire — with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

When your child suddenly starts a tantrum, they are probably not consciously being difficult — their amygdala detected a threat, and the hypothalamus caused them to snap.

During the stress response, your child might experience a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and tense muscles (or just an overwhelming urge to punch you). As much as you may want to reason with your writhing child, don’t expect them to listen. For one thing, the stress response can dampen a child’s already-limited capacity for self-control, a function generally associated with the prefrontal cortex.

“When you have a fire burning in your house, you don’t want to sit and ponder, you want your body to fire on all cylinders so you can escape,” said Dr Carol Weitzman, a developmental-behavioural paediatrician.

With a bit of logical self-reflection, adults can hit the brakes on a stress response. “When a driver cuts you off on the highway, and your blood begins to boil, it’s your prefrontal cortex that allows you to think, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to act this way,’” Weitzman said. But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood, and inhibition and impulse control are among the PFC’s most complicated functions. Therefore, when you try to reason with a child, you’re appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully functioning.

Fortunately for parents, with your developed brain, you can help your child place the lid on the boiling pot during a tantrum by using your prefrontal cortex as a surrogate.

Redirecting your child to alternative activities or breaking their state can often help them settle faster. This means when they start to escalate a tantrum, say something odd, weird, out of normality, so you grab their attention even if they think you have gone crazy. I use to say loudly to my middle child when he would tantrum (often), ‘did you have vegemite on toast or weetbix this morning?’ He would just look at me, part in amusement because mummy was weird and part in confusion. Whatever crazy thing I said crabbed his attention to de-escalate him. Did it work all the time – no, but it did work often. You can read more about managing your child’s behaviour in ‘Who Runs Your House – the kids or you?’

Parents who learn to manage their emotions

Before engaging with your upset child, it’s helpful first to regulate your stress response. If your child is safe, leave the room to take a few deep breaths or whatever you need to de-escalate your frustration allowing you to use your calm state to calm your child.

It’s not completely clear how this works. There are most likely several physiological components, but one might involve mirror neurons, brain cells that fire in response to your own and other people’s behaviours. Watching someone run, for instance, seems to activate a similar brain region as when you run yourself; hearing someone laugh often start you laughing for no apparent reason.

What scientists do know about this group of brain cells may help parents understand how their reactions affect their child and maybe even their newborn babies.

Help manage your child’s tantrum

It’s essential to pair your calmness with warm and empathic cues, which can signal to the amygdala that there’s no danger, as the amygdala stops sending out the alarm, which causes the stress response to cease. It is all in the science.

In the calm-down process, focus more on your actions rather than your words: Your child can mirror your emotions just by looking at your nonverbal communication, like your body posture, vocal tone and facial expressions.

Crouching down and making eye contact with your child during the tantrum, shows you’re listening and engaged. While some upset kids might like physical touch from a parent, others might find it overwhelming.

Legitimise your child’s feelings

Don’t explain to your child why they should calm down; this rarely works when stress is high.

Once your child’s prefrontal cortex is back online, help them form a story about the meltdown. By validating how hard the moment was and repeating back what happened. Remind your child that you’re both OK and that you are there.

Read more from LifestyleDr Karen Phillip


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