Distinguishing between a tantrum for control and a distress tantrum is important so that you can respond in a way that will be most helpful to the development of your child. The two tantrum types require two different reactions in order to nurture essential brain connections that will enable your child to regulate emotions in the future.
A distress tantrum is experienced with feelings of disappointment, desperation, and panic. You can see anguish on your child’s face, and tears are usually a part of the tantrum. These tantrums are an opportunity to help your child. When you respond with comfort and care, you help your child develop brain pathways that make it easier for your child to manage stress in the future.
A tantrum for control, on the other hand, needs to be ignored. These tantrums are your child’s attempts to control and manipulate you into giving in to what he or she wants. Typically, there are no tears and you see no anguish or pain on your child’s face during these manipulative tantrums.
The tricky part is that there will be times when you need to respond to both types of tantrums within one tumultuous experience. What initially seems like a tantrum for control can swing into a distress tantrum. Again, it is important to be aware so you can respond in a way that nourishes the healthy development of your little bundle of love.
Here’s an example. Let’s say Mom stops to pick up dinner, perhaps pizza, on her way home after work. When she arrives, one of her children is unhappy because she wanted tacos instead of pizza. She “demands” that her mom go get tacos. At that point, her furious demands and pouting may look like a tantrum for control. But then the child becomes distressed, starts to cry, and continues to pine for the tacos. She may have moved right into a distress tantrum—distress over feeling forgotten (if pizza is the favorite of a sibling, for example), disappointment because she isn’t getting her favorite and someone else is or because there was a misunderstanding somewhere along the way and she thought she was getting tacos, and perhaps a feeling of panic or fear that her mom’s “forgetting her” means she isn’t loved as much. This child is feeling genuine pain. She will need your help to calm down. If Mom scoops up this little one in her arms, comforts her, and uses words of understanding, this child’s stress-regulating system and the system of arousal are getting the “food” they need to learn how to manage life’s challenges. (And pizza will still be served for supper.)
Your chosen response gives your child the messages that you will be there to help when she or he is in pain, and that you do not respond to commands or manipulation.
More to consider: The contributors . . .
Remember some of the “triggers” of out-of-balance behaviors: fatigue, hunger, the limits of an immature brain, illness, injury, unmet psychological needs, intense emotions, parental stress, and adults’ responses to a child’s behavior that activate the alarm systems of the child’s lower brain.
There is an art to parenting.