Tips for helping your child with temper tantrums

In this episode of the Family Care Learning Podcast, we hear from Brandon and Katie who share tips for helping your child through their temper tantrums. As experts, they also share what the brain is doing during these times. Read our blog post or watch the episode below!

“Tantrums are very stressful when you’re experiencing them. They’re also very stressful to be around someone who is experiencing a tantrum so having more of a background knowledge can help you feel more in control of the situation, which feels very out of control and can help you change your reaction to that,” Katie said.

1. Why does my child throw tantrums? (the two kinds of tantrums)

Sometimes kids can use tantrums as a problem solving technique where if they raise their voice, you’re going to back down and then they’re going to get what they want. It’s also important to keep in mind other tantrums can actually be a survival response for trauma. It’s really important to be able to tell the difference because your response is going to make a difference of whether you see a peaceful outcome of that not.

Katie talks about the difference between intentional tantrums and survival tantrums but first she educates us on the science behind the different parts of the brain where these different tantrums come from.

“Our most basic part is our brain stem. This is the lower part of our brain that is responsible for all of our survival functions like breathing, our heart, the most important stuff that you really don’t want to have to be thinking about it to keep it going,” she said.

“It’s also related to our ability to react to things that you wouldn’t plan for so that’s where your fight, flight, freeze response is going to come from,” she said.

Then she explained the frontal part of the brain.

“That’s going to be where you have more of the higher functions of logic, learning, problem solving, planning and these are functions that actually develop across your lifespan and may even be underdeveloped in kids who may have had more traumatic experiences, less care, more neglect,” she explained.

There’s the problem-solving upstairs brain tantrum or the lower or downstairs brain survival response tantrum.

For kids experiencing an upstairs brain meltdown, they’re thinking to themselves, their want is what they need and they’re going to get what they need. There is an element of control in this type of tantrum. The child is trying to achieve their goal through the meltdown.

For kids experiencing a downstairs brain meltdown that’s when a child really loses control. Katie says this can be a really scary experience for them.

2. How can a parent respond to an “upstairs brain” meltdown?

Explain in advance. “You might notice some candies that you might want, we’re going to buy grapes or whatever other thing or appropriate food that you would like for them to have,” Katie says. “You basically explain it in advance, tell them how you would like them to respond. You’re teaching them how to act in these upcoming scenarios before they occur,” she said.

Have a plan. Katie recommends having a plan for specific challenging situations. That could just be being ready to leave. Try to remember prevention, plan and empower!

“Make sure that you are not reinforcing their learning by after you pre-teach, after you have a plan, after you empower the child with choices, and then they throw a tantrum and then you’re like, oh, well, we’ll just do the candy because I can’t stand you screaming,” Katie said that is not what you want to do. Do not reward the meltdown, stick to your guns she said. Stay strong and don’t give into the meltdown. They will eventually get through it.

3. How can a parent respond to a “downstairs brain” meltdown?

Katie says responding to a downstairs brain meltdown is much more involved. She talks about the three phases. One of the phases is acting out. Another phase is acting in with shame. The last phase is seeking repairing and reconnection. Parents would want to react differently in each phase that their child is in over the course of their meltdown. She said sometimes these types of tantrums can last for hours.

In the acting out phase or panic phase, the child’s brain is stuck where they are flashing between the past and the present.

“That is when the survival brain is activated. A child may be verbally or physically out of control, or maybe completely shut down,” Katie said.

“During this phase, a child really can’t tolerate touch,” Katie said. “Especially because they are in their downstairs brain, their survival brain. They feel if you touch me, you’re probably trying to hurt me so this would be a really important reminder for parents of kids in this first phase, don’t try to give a calming touch,” she said.

Katie said a better reaction from the parent while their child is in this phase one would be to create a wider boundary. “So you’re giving them their space. If it is one of those multiple hour type tantrums, you don’t want to leave them so it would be better if you could stay with them or you can tag team with a partner so you can switch out if it’s getting to be a little bit much for you,” she said. “Staying nearby and checking in with a calm voice saying messages like, ‘I’m here for you. I love you.'” she said.

In the next phase, the “acting in phase,” Katie said there is a little bit more conscious awareness, but it’s still more focused on the emotional pain. The shame that comes with this very scary, very out of control experience and the child’s brain is still stuck in this second phase.

In this phase you may hear the child say things like, “I’m just a bad kids” or “You just hate me.”

“They may or may not tolerate touch at this point, depending on how strongly they’re reacting in this phase,” Katie said.

In this phase, Katie recommends sharing messages of love and safety. Asking them questions like, “Can you name me three red things in this room?” Or, “Can you feel your feet on the floor?”

“You’re trying to help them get back to standing in the present versus being stuck in that painful feeling from the past,” Katie said. She also recommends staying consistent in this phase.

In the final phase, the repair phase Katie said this is when the child becomes unstuck and they’re finally in the present. The shame and anxiety is still there and thoughts of wondering what will happen to me now. At this time, they might want physical touch.

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