We have all been there before. You’re sitting at the grocery store, and your child sees something they want. Before you even have a second to distract them, your little one is in an all-out explosion of anger. Your child melts down, causing a roller coaster of emotion for your child with you being dragged along for the ride.
Your child during a temper tantrum
For children, the world is often a mix of extreme highs and lows. Their brain is still developing, particularly the prefrontal cortex. So this development means that children going to “fly off the handle” at the most minor issue. This is normal developmental behavior, and usually is a healthy season that children progress through.
So here is a little scientific backstory to better understand what your child experiences when they throw a temper tantrum. Within moments your child’s pulse jumps above 130 bpm and the back of their brain, nicknamed the “reptilian” part of the brain, starts working frantically. In fact, the prefrontal pauses its function, so only the instinctual side of the brain is operating at this time. This can happen in just moments, and the affects on your child’s functional ability is staggering.
Here are just a few of impacts that a temper tantrum causes in your child’s body:
- Their ability to communicate is limited – short sentences or even simple words are all they feel capable of in this state.
- Processing new information is slowed – any conversation they are hearing only makes them angrier.
- Their body releases massive amounts of adrenaline into their system, so they feel a wave of energy and aggression.
- They begin to look for two things: an escape and for an enemy. This is that fight-or-flight response that every human has hardwired into their brain, and your child will accidentally access this reaction over the most minor situation.
- Their muscles start to tense preparing for a fight, and their mind races without words to say because of their temporarily-limited communication.
How do these factors affect our children’s ability to get control of their emotions? Here is the bottom line: your child will regress YEARS developmentally right before your eyes. In many ways, talking to your 6-year-old child during a temper tantrum is like speaking with them back when they were 2 years old. And this brings up an important goal: when your child throws a temper tantrum, your goal is not to discipline but to gently support your child as they learn how to calm down.
With all that in mind, here are the four steps to helping your child calm down during a temper tantrum.
1. Getting on their eye level
If there is one step to start trying immediately, this is it. Take your whole body down to your child’s eye level or lower.
Getting down on your knees helps your child feel safe, and removes you as an option to fear when your child is in that fight-or-flight position. Put simply: it is hard for your child to see you as the enemy when you look smaller than they are. So if you are not the enemy, you could be their ally.
Being on your child’s eye-level opens the door to your child being able to hear you, even in the middle of a full meltdown.
The step is simple. The results are often profound.
2. Less is more
Remember that your child’s verbal processing is inhibited, so if you begin to talk they are more likely to get frustrated. Your child will literally have a hard time processing what you are saying. In fact, often the good parenting ideas that work so well when our child is calm only send them further into a tantrum when they are elevated.
So instead of entering into a conversation that will only frustrate your child, limit yourself to 1-2 sentences. Use a calm, gentle voice and try to keep your words simple. This will aid your child as they try to understand.
With such restrictions, you will want to pick your sentence(s) carefully. Here are two directions I recommend using those carefully chosen words.
3. Connect the emotion
If you glance back the image of the brain earlier in the article, you will notice that your child has the emotional part of the brain. It is wedged right between the portions of the brain that focus on thoughts and the side that is ignited during a temper tantrum. This is the limbic part of the brain. So if you want to guide your child back to rational thought in their brain, the path goes right through their emotions.
Saying something as simple, “you feel sad” or “are you feeling angry right now?” will help your child start to move towards calming down. It is important to pick a basic emotion like anger, sadness, or upset until your child is a little more used to this technique.
Remember, your child is still new to the world of emotions. You putting a name on what they are feeling is incredibly empowering to your little one. So help them discover which emotion they are feeling, and if they rebut your first attempt try a different one after a minute or two.
4. Show an escape route
Lastly, after you have gotten down on your child’s eye level and helped them connect their emotion, help them find a way to move out of the tantrum. The first three steps can all be accomplished in a matter of a minute or two. This last one you can expect to take longer and you may even need to wait 10-15 minutes before you try it. That is normal, so sit quietly for a bit before you try this step.
An escape route is any way your child can begin to move or reengage in another activity. Whether this is going outside, pounding some play-dough together, or simple moving to another room – a change of scenery or play is a helpful way to end a temper tantrum. This is also where some coping skills such as deep breathing or playing with kinetic sand that can be helpful here as well. You can even pick 3-4 ideas with your child when they are calm for trying out when they start to throw a temper tantrum.
By the end of the process, your child will likely have begun to calm down, which is no small feat for a child. Praise them for working so hard! It will bless them to know you are proud of them for beginning to learn how to calm themselves. It will also lay the framework for the next temper tantrum going more smoothly than the last.