Behavior & Development • Sep 14, 2015

How to make a toddler’s tantrum stop

We’ve all been there.  It’s the moment when you are about to lose your mind. You’ve spent the last hour trying everything you know to help your child, but when you look into his eyes, you know nothing is going to work. You may be yelling in the middle of the grocery store or trying to reason your way out of a total meltdown at home.  Either way – you know it is hopeless.

Don’t worry – it’s not you.  It’s his brain!  And we can explain….

We all come with a beautiful piece of brain hardware that manages our stress responses. Over the course of our lives, a part of that hardware develops to help us learn and stop old patterns.  When these two systems don’t work together – that’s when the trouble starts, and it’s what helps us to understand why it doesn’t work to talk during a tantrum:

  1. You can’t talk to a child’s thinking brain – because it’s not really developed yet, not fully anyway. As a matter of fact, the cortex, also called “the thinking brain” first starts to really come online around 10 years of age. Yes, that’s right, your fifth grader is just starting to develop the kind of reasoning you use. Even then, this part of the brain will keep developing into an individual’s 30s.  If you are looking for a toddler’s highly structured response and three-part plan for improving her behavior, it may take awhile.
  2. The brain’s stress system works like a gate – shutting off the thinking brain once it is triggered. Let’s just say we parents have enough brain development and experience to start getting some thinking brain involvement when a disruptive behavior starts. The next problem is that the stress system of the brain, also called the amygdala, can be thought of as functioning like a gate. Once the gate shuts, it stops the thinking brain from taking charge.  This is why you can’t reason with a toddler or a player who is screaming on the sidelines.  The part of the brain you want to talk to is locked behind that gate.
  3. Talking a child through a tantrum is a brain mismatch – you are using the techniques that help for YOUR thinking brain and not the ones that work for the brain they are currently using – i.e. the stress-response one. When you are calm and explaining something, you are using the thinking part of your brain (your cortex).  If your child is tantruming you are being blocked by her stress response (the amygdala).  It’s not that she is inherently a “bad kid,” but in this moment, and potentially many other moments like it, you are so far into her stress response, you aren’t even talking to the part of her brain that could learn from your excellent explanation.
  4. Stressed brains often trigger each other. One of the most common toddler patterns is that once they start yelling they trigger everyone around them!  Once those hands are on the hips, it’s amazing how provoking a child’s behavior can be.  If either of you has trouble walking away, it can result in an endless series of triggers, and pretty soon no one is using the thinking brain.  Once a child’s stressed brain is triggered, he can provoke your stress response too.

Now that we understand the power and wiring of the stressed-out brain, we can figure out much more effective strategies including 4 things you can do once the stress system is starting to show up:

  1. Recognize the early cues. Typical warning signs that the stress system is about to take charge of your kid include: avoiding eye contact, pacing or moving away, appearing to not be listening, and missing obvious requests or commands – all of which are attempts by the stress system to manage an already over-stimulated brain.  At this point, it often helps to have your child switch tasks to something he enjoys.  If possible, stop whatever was frustrating him and go on to something new, like a different part of the store or playground.  And definitely stop talking!
  2. Know when the gate is up. Common late cues that the stress system is now in charge include: children rejecting any option you suggest, beginning to yell or escalate physically each time someone speaks, and ultimately not responding to you at all.  Now it is time to remove everyone from the situation and get to a place where you can control the triggers.  But for how long?
  3. Take a brain break. Remember the stress gate that was closing off the thinking brain?  On average, if you remove a child from a triggering situation, it takes around 20 minutes to reopen the thinking part of the brain.  We call it a brain break. In fact, the timing is so reliable, you can often set a cell phone timer to check how long you have before you can talk to the thinking brain again.  It’s that common.  Knowing how long it takes also helps you not to feel like the current emotional storm is an endless response.  After 20 minutes, you can go back to an easier task and see how the child is feeling.  This is not the time to go back to a discussion of her behavior, but it is a time when you can try and finish shopping or whatever you were doing when it started.  Discussions of behavior are best left to times when everyone has been calm for several hours.  If you don’t let the gate fully reopen, you get the pattern we all know where the behavior just continues to get worse, resulting in the multi-hour melt down.
  4. Now you can look ahead to the day and try to modify your toddler’s environment and avoid triggers – WHEN you can… (of course, the MomDocs know this is sometimes impossible!). Sometimes it helps to write out the things you know are triggering your toddler and brainstorm strategies that can help. You can even talk to other moms and get the kind of “pro-tips” we all need as parents.  For instance, a child who has a breakdown in the candy aisle, can mean that the aisle has to be avoided or you only go down that row if they already have something they like to eat.  Siblings are common stress triggers, so make plans for ways they can easily be separated as soon as they start picking on each other.  Sometimes this involves bringing distractions so that each sibling can be entertained separately, even if they have to be in the same space.

Even with all the techniques in the world, some days it just feels like the stress system can’t stop being triggered, especially if the sibling keeps coming back for the last word.  Some times the best option is to just leave the task and give everyone time to really calm down.

At the end of the day, you can only control one brain in any interaction: your own.  We all experience moments where we wish we parented differently or wish that our child responded differently. That’s normal.  The key is to understand the limits of the brain your child is using at the time and try to work with it.  Sometimes we all need a brain break!