Inside your child’s mind during a temper tantrum

When your child is throwing a temper tantrum, it can feel like you’re being tossed into the middle of a tornado. The enraged looks, the incoherent screaming, the physical aggression – it can make you wonder if your child was just replaced by a crazy person. What in the world is going on in my child’s mind?!? Is there anything that will calm them down?

Whenever a child is throwing a temper tantrum, their world feels scary and out of control. Their emotions can turn off, their heart begins to race, and they will look for a place to release their anger. (For a more detailed explanation of what happens with your child’s mind during a temper tantrum, you can read on how to guide your child out of a temper tantrum).

During a temper tantrum, your child’s mind will be racing with two basic questions. Understanding these questions will be crucial to helping your child be able to start the calming-down process.

 

Question #1: Who is my enemy?

We are wired to look for a cause. When we feel heat on our fingers, our brain is designed to react and pull our hand away. When we smell something delicious, we look reflexively for the source. And when we are in a panic, we look for the danger.
Our child’s mind works the same way: they look for the cause of their meltdown. They are wired to look for what made them feel out of control. Your child is looking for the bad guy.
 
   

 A child’s view when calm                                                          A child’s view when in a meltdown

When your child is getting worked up, you will often see them frantically scanning the room. And what looks more like a bad guy than a parent that is twice their size? Like the drawing shows above (art by Ben Humeniuk), even the most loving and caring parent can suddenly become someone to be feared or fought in a child’s mind.

Question #2: Where is my escape?

Uncomfortable feelings are something that we all want out of. We will go to great lengths to avoid sadness, anger, or fear. For our children, these feelings are even more intense. They have relatively little experience in understanding that emotions come and go. Instead, their little minds will often trick them into believing that this temper tantrum will be here for forever unless they do something to change it. So they look for the way out. They crave the escape.

 

This fight-or-flight response makes it challenging to help our children calm down. Well-intended statements like “It’s not so bad” or “I’ll be back soon” often make things worse. Our children are looking for their emotions to come back to happiness. They are looking for the feeling of safety.
So this is where we as parents start, with this framework of better understanding what our children are going through in a temper tantrum.

What to do

1. Get 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. This can help your child begin to see you as an ally in their plight to regain control.

The step is simple. The results are often profound.

 

2. Show an escape route

After you have gotten down on your child’s eye level, help them find a way to move out of the tantrum. Whereas getting down on your child’s eye level may take only a couple seconds, this step you can expect to take significantly longer. 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 playing 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.