Have you ever wondered what is happening inside your child when she’s having a full-blown temper tantrum and ends up an exhausted emotional puddle on the floor? Have you ever wished you could just figure out what flips the switch in his brain so you could avoid his ill-timed meltdowns in the middle of the supermarket aisle, on an airplane or in a restaurant?
R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D, senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and author of Why We Snap, says that tantrums are “part of the brain’s threat detection mechanism” and are actually rooted in our human survival instinct— we feel anger and aggression in order to be able to fight and fend off danger. Fields says that your “kid’s anger is actually natural and necessary physiological response which stems from those early human, cave-dwelling days, when things with sharp teeth saw human beings as fleshy bite-sized snacks”.
For toddlers and preschool age kids, a tantrum is often triggered when they feel a sense of injustice about something being deliberately withheld or taken from them, whether it be a lollipop, a new toy or a snack before bedtime. As adults we can certainly relate to the rage that results from being treated unfairly, so why don’t we end up on the floor, screaming and pounding our fists?
Because, as we get older, our brains acquire the ability to regulate our emotions and actions. It’s kind of like having a traffic cop inside our heads, directing us to heed signals of when to stop, when to go, when to slow down or turn around. In the preschool years, the self-regulation part of kids’ brains are still under construction. Managing their feelings and behaviors is a major task and they’re literally not up to it. On top of that, young kids’ limited vocabulary adds to their anger and frustration. Temper tantrums then become a way to express themselves.
By the time they’re five-years-old and start kindergarten, kids’ brains have developed neural pathways that help them better regulate their emotions and actions. Because of this they can build friendships, are more able to pay attention, learn new things and are able to navigate the everyday stresses and disappointments of daily life.
Besides his developing brain, as a parent, you play a big role in helping your child learn to regulate his emotions. If you squelch his tantrums or punish him when he has a meltdown, it actually makes it much harder for him to learn from the experience. “Telling them that they shouldn’t get angry in the situation isn’t very helpful. What they need to know is why they’re angry, and why they’re angry in a biological sense,” says Dr. Fields. There’s no point in appealing to them to stop being angry — you’re appealing to a part of the brain that’s not developed…what you have to do is wait it out…they will calm down, and then you can begin to intervene and to help them solve the problem” or talk through what’s frustrating or upsetting them.
It’s exciting to witness your kid begin to learn how to express what she wants, to calm herself when she’s angry and, because she’s more able to self-regulate, to be better able to concentrate, share and take turns. But remember that these changes aren’t linear and there will still be situations where she struggles to manage her feelings and behaviours, especially when she’s tired, hungry or having to face a new experience.
By the time your child is four or five, difficulty self-regulating can be a warning sign of mental health issues and is something you should check out further. Some of the signs of self-regulation difficulties include an inability to concentrate (e.g., being unable to listen to a story), appearing sullen and/or uninterested in daily activities (e.g., playing with other children), or getting so bent out of shape about a situation that they are unable to move on.
If you sense that your child is not learning to self-regulate, or to understand and successfully express his or her feelings, and is prone to tantrums beyond his or her toddler years, we recommend seeking advice from a health professional to better understand what’s going on with your child’s brain development and how to best support it.