Toddler tantrums disrupting your day?! In this article, Educational Psychologist (and more importantly, mum of 2!) Aileen, discusses the neuroscience behind toddler tantrums, the two different types of tantrums, and interestingly, the completely different way we should deal with each type
We all had our opinions – ahem, judgements - about toddler tantrums before we had children...
‘That child is too used to getting his own way’,
‘When I have children they won’t speak to me like that’,
‘That child just doesn’t know that “no means no”’.
And then we created one of these cute little terrorists of our own, and things got real.
We all know the feeling of powerlessness as your child lies on the supermarket floor because the granola bar you gave him came out of the wrapper in two and you can’t put it back together. The feeling of embarrassment as you try to ignore the judgmental looks and lift him kicking and screaming out of the shop, your face burning and your eyes firmly pointed at the floor. The self-criticism as you rack your brain wondering how that just happened, and how you became the parent you were sure you’d never be.
And the comfort you get from the sympathetic look from another mom in the carpark as she nods knowingly.
You’re not alone, you’re just a normal parent.
We’ve all heard both parents and paediatricians speak of the ‘terrible twos’. This is a stage of development characterised by toddler tantrums which can sometimes be hilariously funny and adorably cute, but let’s be honest, when you’re sleep-deprived, frazzled and juggling a million other things in your day, they’re mostly frustrating! And despite what the name may suggest, the terrible twos phase can begin as early as 18 months and extend well into the third year of your child’s life. It is common to hear parents refer to their kids as ‘three-nagers’ or say that they are ‘3 going on 13’.
Most parents have been advised that the only way to handle a tantrum is to ignore it. In this article, I'll look at why this advice doesn’t apply to all tantrums. The key to dealing with toddler tantrums is recognising the different types and understanding how to handle each. Dan Seigel’s theory of the upstairs and downstairs brain is vital in helping parents understand why toddlers throw tantrums by exploring how their brains function. Margot Sunderland, the author of What Every Parent Needs to Know, also discusses two types of toddler tantrums, their causes and different tactics to apply to each.
We’ll begin by looking at Siegel’s model of the developing child’s brain and how this might help us to make sense of behaviours than often seem nonsensical.
(As a side note, if you're experiencing regular toddler tantrums at changing time, you might find our 5 Tips for a Calm Toddler Diaper Change article helpful!)
In his book ‘The Whole Brained Child’, Dan Seigel introduces the concept of the downstairs and upstairs parts of the brain. According to him (and years of neuroscience research), the downstairs brain is well-developed right from birth. This is the part that regulates breathing, blinking and other basic systems we have no control over. It is also in this part that our innate impulses, emotional responses, and survival reactions are stored.
The upstairs brain on the other hand, develops all through childhood to adulthood, undergoing major changes during adolescence. The upstairs brain is where all higher functioning happens; thinking, reasoning, planning, and where we store our memories. This is also the part that makes decisions and balances emotions. This gives you a fuller perspective on the world.
To give a visual, think of Star Trek's Captain Kirk (downstairs brain!) vs Spock (upstairs brain!)...
Our role as parents then, Siegel suggests, is to try to help our children integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains, to develop a ‘whole-brain child’. Sound like a mammoth task? That’s because it is! And to truly understand tantrums, it is important to remember that your child’s upstairs brain is a work in progress. In fact, it doesn't fully develop until we're around 25.
This makes it difficult for our little ones to exercise the functions of this part such as controlling emotions, making good decisions and showing empathy especially when they are frustrated or experiencing other negative emotions. Strong emotions such as anger and fear are a function of the downstairs brain. Without a fully developed upstairs brain to control these emotions, your child is likely to erupt in anger during moments of high emotion.
Based on this understanding of the brain, Seigel presents two types of tantrums, the upstairs tantrum and the downstairs tantrum.
Margot Sunderland is a British child psychologist and psychotherapist who has written numerous books and has worked with families and children for over 30 years. When it comes to toddler tantrums, she’s a total expert and has also identified two different types of tantrums, which she calls ‘Little Nero Tantrums’ and ‘Distress Tantrums’. Little Nero tantrums are very similar to Siegel's Upstairs Tantrums, while 'Distress Tantrums' map on very well to Downstairs Tantrums. So to really get an understanding of your little one's behaviour and figure out the best way to handle tantrums, we'll look at these different types together.
According to Sunderland, the Little Nero toddler tantrum is driven by the desire to control and manipulate. She explains that these kinds of tantrums are usually tear-free and that your child’s behaviour during these is often deliberate and calculated. Siegel explains that your child is essentially making the choice to push your buttons to get what he or she wants. The easiest way to identify this kind of tantrum is by how easy it is for your child to stop the tantrum once they either get what they want or realize that the tantrum isn’t working. This essentially means that your child is fully in control of their emotions and is capable of making decisions logically.
Seigel explains that in a downstairs tantrum, your child is so distressed that he/she is no longer able to use their upstairs brain. The strong emotions of the downstairs brain completely take over the upstairs brain. He refers to this as ‘flipping the lid’ and your child’s upstairs brain is essentially blocked off meaning he can’t control his emotions or reaction.
According to Sunderland, distress tantrums are caused by a child struggling with strong feelings such as disappointment or frustration and becoming extremely upset. Genuine distress tantrums are usually about your child’s physical and emotional needs. Tiredness and/or hunger, overwhelming feelings, frustration, disappointment and fear are some of the most common causes. It is important to remember that your child’s brain isn’t fully developed and they therefore do not know how to handle these emotions. They also lack clear language skills which means they won’t be able to clearly express their needs or emotions leading to more frustration.
OK, so it’s helpful to understand the different types of tantrums to give us some insight into our child’s perspective on things. But the big question remains – how do we deal with them? Do we ignore them? Cuddle them? Give them consequences? Help them calm down?
Funny enough, it’s all of the above. But importantly, according to the Siegel and Sunderland, our reactions should be very different for the different tantrums.
The only response, never negotiate with a terrorist.
This type of tantrum should be ignored as giving your child attention may cause them to adopt this behaviour even more. Your child will learn that behaving in a certain way gets them what they want. You can differentiate this type of tantrum from genuine distress tantrums by checking on your child’s levels of anguish, panic or desperation. In the beginning, it might be different to tell the difference but once you observe your child’s tantrums for some time, it’ll be quite easy to spot the differences.
An extra practical tip if you're battling Little Nero tantrums at nappy changing time may be to consider investing in a Toddler Changing Mat. You'll find our complete guide here.
The advice from both Siegel and Sunderland for these tantrums is the same. With this type of tantrum, you need to move towards the child with comfort and solace. It’s important to remember that they are not yet able to regulate these strong emotions. The way they learn is to first be regulated by us so they can experience what it feels like and slowly learn to regulate themselves.
The best advice anyone ever gave us when it comes to handling tantrums is to check our expectations. Feeling of loss, disappointment and hurt are hard enough to handle for an adult with a fully developed brain and great communication skills. Imagine how hard it is for a 2-year-old to deal with these same feelings. Your child’s anger over having to use the blue cup over the pink cup may seem trivial to you but at that moment, it is all that matters to your child. Empathise with your child and remember to stay present and give them your undivided attention even when they are driving you nuts.
Your child will often feed off your energy so try to stay calm and keep your cool when dealing with your child’s behaviour. Keeping regular meal and sleep schedules is important not only for healthy development but might also help to keep your toddler calm. Tantrums are less likely to occur when your child is well-fed and well-rested.
The tips given here for handling tantrums are hopefully helpful but you must remember that not all kids are the same. Although tantrums may seem never-ending, this phase will also pass as your child learns to express themselves and to have more control over their impulses. Until then, experiment with different approaches based on your child’s temperament and soon enough you’ll find what works for you.
And remember, building your child's brain is like carving a great sculpture, it takes time, patience and huge effort, we will make mistakes, but with a bit of luck, the end result will be worth it!
PS Check out our other articles, including Diapers vs Pull ups - Cut the Poop, here's the Scoop
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