Temper tantrums typically occur because connections in a child’s brain have not yet developed in a way that allows for powerful feelings to be managed in socially acceptable ways. This week, we will look at distress tantrums, temper tantrums that are the result of genuine emotional pain.

A distress tantrum is activated by one or more “alarm systems” in the emotional part of your child’s brain. The alarm systems referred to include rage, fear, and separation distress. When these alarms are triggered, your child’s body and brain are flooded with stress chemicals, resulting in an out-of-balance child.

It is important to understand these dramatic changes in the body and brain because during a distress tantrum, your child’s thinking functions and verbal centers, which control comprehension and verbal expression, are unavailable. Expecting to talk to your child or expecting your child to talk to you about his or her feelings is unrealistic. Your child is only able to discharge the strong emotions.

Your role during a distress tantrum is to provide comfort while your child is in the throws of these biochemical changes in his or her brain and body. When you provide understanding and a calm presence to your child during this distressful time, you help your child develop important stress-regulating systems and stress-regulating connections in his or her brain. As you comfort your child during one of these tantrums, you are using your mature body’s arousal system, which will help to calm and teach your child’s immature arousal system. When your child receives help for the intense feelings of rage, frustration, and/or distress, the brain is developing pathways that will allow your child to calm himself down when under stress. This is a learning process, which means your child will learn to have more control over intense emotions over time.

Here are some ideas about how to handle a distress tantrum:

  • Provide simple choices and do so calmly. For example, if your child is upset about breakfast, ask him if he would rather have orange juice or apple juice.
  • Provide distraction. Distraction engages the area of the brain that promotes curiosity, which can naturally override the rage or distress systems. Curiosity and interest also activate chemicals that reduce stress and promote positive feelings. Distraction is most effective when used before your child’s brain and body are totally out of balance.
  • Cuddle. If you can feel calm and in control yourself, it can really help to tenderly hold a child in distress. As you hold your distressed child close to you, your calmness will help bring your child’s brain and body back in balance. Cuddling releases calming chemicals.
  • Be mindful. Remind yourself that the distress of the moment can be real. Young children have a perspective totally different from that of adults. If an older sibling takes a toy from a younger sibling, the younger sibling may view this as a real loss. For a younger child, this loss may mean everything at that moment.
  • Anticipate. Contemplate. Ask yourself, “What can I do now to avoid distress later?” Decide what is worth fighting about. Where can you relax rules and expectations?

Not all tantrums are struggles for power.