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Tackling Tantrums Part 1: It's Not Personal, It's Developmental

You said "No" and now your child is on the ground, screaming and kicking.

You roll your eyes, take an exaggerated breath in and you feel your jaw tense up.

What goes through your head? If you're anything like me it could be anything like the following:

-"Really? Right now? We are going to be late."

-"OMG, you are too old for this. Stop acting like a baby."

-"If I give in I am just going to reinforce this behaviour."

-"I have to just ignore them."

-"Why are they doing this to me?!"

-"I cannot handle this anymore!"

Pick your poison!

Then you could respond with any of the following:

-You just walk away and ignore them.

-You placate them to just get the tantrum done and over-with.

-You try to distract them with a toy, food, tv whatever to get their attention away from not getting their desired outcome.

-You tell them to stop and proceed to punish them by taking away privileges to motivate them.

-You lose your cool and scream back because they just know how to push your buttons!

Then they respond:

-They "put their tears away" and progressively get quieter over the next few moments, but still sound a bit "whiny" until they find something else to do.

-They get more upset and the tantrum is explodes. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Does any of this sound familiar? Is this the kind of pattern that you see as normal? Is this something you try to avoid, but it happens anyway? If you haven't experienced this yourself with your own children, perhaps it's what you experienced as a child? Regardless, you have mostly likely seen this take place at the park or play group or Wal-Mart.

The key to navigating these moments in a way that aligns with your parenting values, isn't a new script to use with your kiddos, a different tactic or type of reward or punishment. The key is a complete paradigm shift! As Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson point out "Those moments you are just trying to survive are actually opportunities to help your child thrive."

The culture around us tells us that we need to control our child's behaviour. That a "good" child is well-behaved. That a good parent never gives in and certainly doesn't reward inappropriate behaviour.

Here is the trouble with that line of thinking:

#1 - The focus is *entirely* on the behaviour, doing whatever you can to make the child stop and/or prevent it from happening again.

#2 - It sees tantrums as inappropriate and wrong.

But what does science say?

#1- Dr. Ross Greene explains that our kids' most challenging behaviours are caused by unmet needs and lagging skills. There is *ALWAYS* something going on behind the behaviour. When we put our attention on the behaviour it becomes a wall between us and our child and we both end up ramming ourselves into it. When we see the behaviour as a symptom of something else it becomes a window into our child's inner world and an incredibly valuable tool to support our children in the way that supports them in becoming resilient, secure humans.

#2 - Tantrums occur when your child "flips their lid". They get triggered into fight/flight/freeze because their nervous system perceives a threat (even if that threat is the wrong colour sippy cup!). They lose access to their "thinking brain" (in a physical sense, the pre-frontal cortex of their brain actually goes off-line) and their emotional and survival brain takes the driver's seat. Anything you do to try to educate them (lecturing) or force them to modify their behaviour (punishment/rewards) will backfire. These responses are completely developmentally appropriate and your child is doing exactly what they are supposed to do, biologically speaking, in these moments. Tantrums are not conscious manipulations. They are expressions of a dysregulated nervous system.

Why do the culturally normal responses to tantrums not work???


  • Fails because your child's thinking brain is not online so they are physically unable to comprehend and learn in that state. (Not a good time to explain why the colour of the cup doesn't matter or the value of a hard-earned dollar!)


  • Fail because they increase the sense of threat. This will either drive them further into "fight" more (ie- more screaming!) OR push them into "flight" mode (ie- they will get a rush of anxiety that causes them to leave the area quietly, but they are still in a threat state and unable to learn) OR they go all the way to "freeze/shutdown" because the feeling of threat is so great that they internally collapse, appearing to be calm but their nervous system is actually still extremely dysregulated and again, they are unable to learn or effectively modify their behaviour.

  • NOTE: All of the above responses in your child are *involuntary*. They didn't chose to fight, flight or freeze. Their nervous system made that choice for them. They didn't learn to scream more to get what they wanted, or become quite to control their behaviour. They had an unconscious nervous system shift.


  • Fail because if your child *does* actually learn to control their behaviour through the use of rewards they are doing so because of an external motivator. Remember, the flip side of rewards is always punishment. You can inadvertently punish your child by taking away the reward or by not giving it because they didn't achieve their desired behaviour. (And then you have the ill-effects of punishment) And when your are rewarding your child for good behaviour they are not behaving well because they know how to regulate themselves. They are behaving well to earn that reward. Take away the reward and the behaviour often regresses.

Take Aways!

-The conventional approaches to tantrums don't work and often undermine our parenting goals.

-A paradigm shift is needed to see tantrums as a symptom of an unmet need or lagging skill.

-Tantrums are not about you! They are not personal. They are developmental! Your child is not pushing your buttons, they are having a really hard time and are being flooded with stress hormones.

-Tantrums are not an emergency. They are an opportunity.

Stay tuned next week to learn about what you can do instead!


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