How to ease your child’s tantrums and stop yourself having one too
Dr Beth Mosley, author of Happy Families, on how to deal with toddler tantrums.
NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Beth Mosley's new book, Happy Families, takes an honest and accessible approach to children’s mental health, arming parents and carers with the tools they need to tackle anxiety, low mood and difficult behaviours. Here, she offers advice on how to deal with tantrums – and keep calm while doing it.
My eldest son is now 18, but I can still remember the moments of complete meltdown as a toddler, throwing himself on the floor, crying, screaming, hitting out; me trying to work out the quickest way to get things back to normal and not erupt into a meltdown myself.
Emotions are contagious!
Younger children are less able to communicate their feelings with words; therefore, the clues to their emotions are often what they do with their bodies (their behaviour). Often these behaviours give us an insight into an underlying physical or emotional need (hungry, tired, sad, angry). In order to be effective these behaviours need to create an emotional response in us as parents and carers so we can respond and help meet the need (e.g. my child is crying because he has hurt himself so I will provide comfort and care). The challenge for any parent is that this emotional response (particularly to behaviours that seem disproportionate or make no sense – like tantrums) can make it hard to stay calm and may even trigger the equivalent of a tantrum in us. This is especially likely when we are tired, frustrated and juggling an array of demands. So, how can you help your child, and yourself?
Some brain basics
Clinical professor of psychiatry Dr Dan Siegel and paediatric and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Tina Payne Bryson talk about the brain being like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs.
The downstairs is where our emotions live. It is also the alarm system in our brain, detecting when things are unsafe (fight-flight). When we are born this part of the brain is well developed and works automatically.
The upstairs is the thinking part of the brain, where language develops as well as our ability to organise ourselves, problem-solve and describe how we are feeling. The upstairs part of our brain takes about twenty-four years to develop!
Our ability to use our feelings and thoughts to make sense of situations and decisions about what we do next is what sets us apart as humans. The strength of the connection between the downstairs and upstairs brain is critical to this ability. Imagine a staircase which connects the downstairs (emotional) brain and upstairs (thinking) brain.
This staircase enables the emotional and thinking parts of the brain to share information. If the downstairs brain is getting over-excited or upset, the upstairs brain can work out what’s needed to resolve a problem, take action and signal to the downstairs brain to calm down.
‘As parents and carers, we play a key role in helping our children make the link between their feelings, their needs and how to use language to communicate.’
As parents and carers, we play a key role in supporting the development of this connection through helping our children make the link between their feelings, their needs and how to use language to communicate.
When the downstairs emotional brain gets overly activated the upstairs brain disconnects from the downstairs brain (a term coined 'flipping the lid' by Siegel and Bryson). This is the brain's way of protecting us from danger. It prioritises acting quickly because it knows in a dangerous situation it needs to (e.g. to jump out of the way of a moving vehicle). In these moments the downstairs emotional brain takes over our bodies, meaning that we may behave in ways that protect us in a dangerous situation (shouting, crying, hitting out, running away), but could add to distress in a non-dangerous context. Importantly, the upstairs brain is offline at this time, meaning we can’t listen to logic or engage in problem solving.
What does this mean for a tantrum?
When our children are experiencing a tantrum their downstairs (emotional) brain has taken over and they need help from those around them to reconnect the upstairs (thinking) brain. This helps in the immediate moment of quickly calming our child, but also helps in the longer term, as it helps reinforce the staircase, so that our children’s brains get better at connecting their emotional and thinking brains (emotional regulation). How we make our children feel in these moments is going to be critical to how quickly their flipped lid (upstairs brain) settles back down to re-connect with their upstairs brain.
How to deal with a tantrum: connection before correction
Try these four simple steps next time your child, no matter what their age, has a meltdown:
Take a deep breath. What is happening for your child right now, from their perspective? What is happening for you right now? How are you feeling? Is your lid about to flip? What can you do to help yourself calm down (e.g. breathing deeply, moving to a quieter place, asking for help).
Stay calm. Keep your body language and facial expression relaxed and use your voice to show interest or care. Remember you’re trying to soothe the downstairs brain. Your child needs to understand they have got your attention. They are safe. Come down to your child’s level. Use physical touch if that is helpful for your child. Your child may need a reduction in sensory information to help them regulate (being in a quieter environment).
With curiosity, rather than judgement, try to put into simple calm words what your child might be feeling “You’re feeling angry because you can’t have the cake, I understand?” By naming what our children might be experiencing and showing we care we are helping them make the link between their feelings, their needs and their thoughts. We are helping them learn to put words to these experiences. It helps your child feel understood. It calms the downstairs brain: 'name it to tame it' (Siegel).
You will notice when your child’s lid is back on. They should be calmer and able to accept your care. You may notice they are listening to you. It is at this point you can now resolve the problem “Maybe you can have some cake, after dinner? Shall we go and see Grandma now?” For older children when you are in this zone you can come up with ideas together to help for the next time they feel overwhelmed: “Would it have helped if I had given you a few minutes on your own to calm down?”
You don’t have to use this approach all the time, just enough that your child can start developing the skills. If you imagine in these moments you are lending your child your upstairs (thinking) brain, to soothe and help their downstairs (emotional) brain feel safe and understood.
Importantly, to do this, we need to find ways to look after ourselves as parents so that we can keep our own lids from flipping and unintentionally adding to the drama of the moment. Think of the things that help keep you calm and your resource bucket topped up. Be aware that certain things can increase the sensitivity of the downstairs brain to stress (for both you and your child) including: lack of sleep, hunger, feeling isolated, traumatic experiences, neurodevelopmental diversity. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from trusted others if you are having a challenging time. Feeling supported and cared for by others can help give you the resources to support your child when they need you the most.