Temper tantrums are the expression of intense emotional storms. Because they are so intense, temper tantrums can be frightening to the child experiencing the storm and overwhelming for a parent. To avoid the whole situation turning into a matter of who “wins,” it is important for the mom, dad, and other adults to remain calm and think rationally and creatively to help the child learn how to handle such strong feelings.

Tantrums are actually important events for the young, developing brain. During emotional storms, a child has an opportunity to learn how to regulate emotions and manage stress. This learning process encourages brain pathways to be established and reinforced so that managing emotions and stress become a part of the child’s self-control. A child who has had big feelings and is then comfortable expressing these big feelings, and who also gets support, comfort, and love from a caring adult, can more easily later in life face frustration rather than respond to it with outbursts of anger and controlling behavior.

As a parent, it can help to remember that not all tantrums are power struggles. Many tantrums are actually about sincere emotional pain felt by your child. Strong feelings like disappointment, loss, and frustration are distressing and upsetting. This type of distress tantrum needs a response that is sensitive and understanding. Your child needs help with such big feelings, and giving comfort is in order.

The other type of tantrum is very different from a distress tantrum. Margot Sunderland, author of more than 20 published books on child mental health, refers to these controlling, manipulative tantrums as “Little Nero tantrums.” A child in the midst of a Little Nero tantrum is trying to bully his or her parents into yielding, whether it be for a toy, food, or attention. This child has learned that shouting and screaming get results.

Over the next couple weeks, we will look closer at the distress tantrum and the Little Nero tantrum. In the meantime, remember the well-recognized triggers for emotional distress: hunger, fatigue, and tension.

Next week, Parenting Playbook will focus on the distress tantrum in more detail . . .