The anatomy of a tantrum - and how to defuse them
The anatomy of a tantrum - and how to defuse them Image Credit: Shutterstock

We've all been there - wincing with embarrassment or bubbling up with annoyance as our little one throws an epic tantrum in public for no apparent reason.

Maybe it's because you refused to buy them an ice cream, or maybe it's because you made the unforgivable mistake of giving them the blue sippy cup instead of the orange one. To us adults, these little fits of pique and their often-violent accompaniments - kicking, screaming, perhaps throwing said sippy cup at your head - can seem nonsensical, and highly frustrating.

But there is a complex psychological process at play whenever a toddler starts resorting to screaming, crying or throwing things.

"When we have big emotions, the part of our brain that is responsible for attention, thinking, reasoning and judgment (our prefrontal cortex) shuts down and is not available," says Zsuzsanna Egry, a certified instructor for Hand in Hand Parenting, which is affiliated with social enterprise Tanshi2a in the UAE.

"This is why we can't remember much at an exam if we are too stressed. That is also why our toddler, who is frustrated because he can't yet communicate what he wants from us in words, has a meltdown when we pick the wrong thing from the shelf. No amount of reasoning, explanation, or punishment will make him able to behave differently. In fact, he is doing the best thing possible to resolve the problem. Through the tantrum, he is getting rid of the tension in his emotional brain (limbic system) so he can get his thinking brain in working condition again."

It's not personal, it's physical

One of the first reactions parents have when their little one loses it in public is embarrassment, but there's no need to feel this way if we understand where the tantrum is coming from, says Dr Sarah Rasmi, licensed psychologist and managing director of the Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. "Many of the parents who come to see me - particularly mothers - are ashamed of their toddler's tantrums, believing that they reflect badly on their parenting skills," she explains. "But toddler tantrums are completely normal. In fact, I would seriously question anyone who claims their toddler has never had one."

A toddler's immature nervous system isn't yet wired to react to difficult situations in the same way as an adult body is.

A three-year-old's prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain associated with judgment, planning and emotion regulation - is far less developed than an adult's or even an older child's, so we can't expect the same level of reason or control, continues Dr Rasmi: "Things that might seem usual to us can be confusing, scary, or frustrating for them," she says.

"This confusion, anger, and fear kicks them into fight-or-flight mode, which is a physiological process designed to protect us from imminent threats. Cortisol (the stress hormone) starts coursing through their bodies once this state is activated. Toddlers will then experience symptoms such as rapid heart rate and butterflies (or knots) in their stomachs. This clouds their thinking. On top of that, toddlers haven't learned how to channel this energy or regulate their emotions yet. As a result, this confusion, fear, and anger is expressed as a tantrum. It's their brain and body responding to a difficult situation (even if it seems silly to us, it's significant to them in that moment)."

How this can inform our response

This knowledge is important for two reasons, says Dr Rasmi: "First, it allows us to consider our toddler's perspective when they are having a tantrum. This allows us to feel empathy towards them, which increases the chance that we will respond rather than react to their behaviour.

"Secondly, it allows us to validate their emotions, which has a number of benefits. Naming their feeling helps them put a label on the emotion that they are experiencing. It also makes them feel understood and supported.

"Finally, showing our children empathy models that behaviour for them, which is key to raising empathetic kids."

Hand in Hand Parenting's Zsuzsanna Egry agrees that empathy and emotional validation are important reactions to a child's meltdown, but goes one step further, emphasising that not only should we not be irritated or upset by the crying - we should learn to embrace it.

"By understanding how emotions work in the brain, we realise that when our toddler tantrums he does not hear us, he cannot pay attention to us, and he is not in control of his behaviour," she says. "He is overwhelmed with emotions and needs our help to be able to get back on track. He needs us on his side to help him clear his emotions."

We need to see beyond the actual situation and understand that our child is trying to relieve herself from tension, says Egry. "It is true that it does not make much sense to us to cry about a broken banana at breakfast, but stepping back and considering that perhaps she has to go to school and say good-bye to us in a few minutes can give a better perspective about the reaction. We adults do that all the time as well! When we have a bad day at work we often initiate a quarrel with our spouse about not putting back the toilet seat back in its place!"

How to respond constructively to a child's meltdown Image Credit: Shutterstock


Rather than responding emotionally in turn yourself, experts recommend remaining calm and following some of these gentle steps to dealing with a mounting temper tantrum:

1. Ensure they are safe

"Child safety supersedes everything," says Dr Sarah Rasmi, licensed psychologist and managing director of Thrive Wellbring Centre in Dubai. If your toddler is putting themselves or others at risk, take them out of the situation, using gentle force if need be. "Children need boundaries and limits, but - contrary to popular belief - they don't have to be set harshly," says Hand in Hand Parenting's Zsuzsanna Egry. "A loving 'No, I am sorry, I cannot let you do this," with a firm hand is all that is necessary."

2. Check in with yourself

Assuming your child is safe, check in with your own feelings first, says Dr Rasmi. "If you're feeling frustrated, then you might want to ask someone else to step in. If that's not an option, then a few deep breaths can help you burn off some of the cortisol coursing through your own body."

3. Look at it from their point of view

The next step would be to try to understand your child's perspective, says Dr Rasmi. Are they feeling confused, scared, or angry - and why? Or perhaps they are hungry, thirsty, tired or getting sick? All of these things can help us to understand our child's behaviour.

4. Offer reassurance, but be realistic

Offer gentle touch, eye contact, be close by, but do not expect your child to stop the tantrum right away, says Egry. "He may need a lot more time to clear the hard feelings before being able to think again. Provide kind reassurances to create a safe place in which, if he needs to, he can fall apart, and then put himself back again."

5. Don't try to stop it

"We have been trained to think that our role here is to try to stop the tantrum," adds Egry. "So we try to talk our child out of it. But the more we talk, the less we really listen, and the more difficult it is for our child to complete his healing process."

6. Validate their feelings

Reflecting a child's feelings back and labelling them can ensure a child feels heard and lessen frustration. "Every minute or so we can drop an empathic 'I am sorry it is so hard', or 'I am here to care for you'," says Egry.

7. Don't be afraid of their emotions

"When we allow children to get rid of their difficult feelings through crying, they come back to their loving, better selves without any 'disciplining'," claims Egry. "It makes parenting very difficult if we just want our 'no' to be respected, but we don't want to hear any of the upset that follows. In doing so we demand our children carry their bag of emotions around without ever giving them an opportunity to relieve the tension. So saying our "no" and allowing them their feelings will make life much easier for both of us."