You've got two things left on the shopping list (sorry kid, we’re not getting cake). You’re rocking this grocery run—until the foot stamp. Then a scowl, followed by tears and screams. Oh, the screams. That’s what a tantrum looks like on the outside. Inside, it all begins in the brain. But how exactly does your kid turn into a seething ball of rage in seconds?
Clench your fist. Imagine this is the regulatory core, the emotional brain. Now wrap your other hand around it like a protective shell. That’s the cortex, the rational brain. During a tantrum, the logical part checks out; it’s all raw fight-or-flight emotion. “When the cortical layer disengages, it’s like a volcano,” says Vanessa Lapointe, a Vancouver-based psychologist and author of Discipline Without Damage. “Feelings come spewing out with nothing to regulate them.”
For preschoolers, an occasional flipped lid is normal, she says, because their brains aren’t fully developed. “They can’t control impulses and they can’t reason, so things escalate quickly.” As your kid grows, she’ll still have these feelings, but she’ll know how to handle them—because her brain will mature, and you will teach her. Julie McCann finally got there with her son, Casey. Now nine, he knows to step away when he’s overwhelmed—but life wasn’t always so peaceful. When he was five, it was hard to convince him to have quiet time; overstimulated, he’d start screaming, stomping and chucking books. “When I saw it coming, I’d put him in the tub,” McCann says. “We’d use bubbles, so it was special.” At home, plunging him in soothing water became her no-fail tactic.
For kids prone to tantrums, parents can play detective. The key is to find patterns to help prevent outbursts. “Look for a connection between anger and hunger, sleep deprivation, social frustrations or transitions,” says Stella Kavoukian, a child and family therapist in Toronto. Prepping kids for any change can really help. You may be watching the clock at the play place, thinking you’re giving reasonable warnings—“Five more minutes!”—but a three-year-old has no sense of time. “Instead, be concrete: ‘Two more trips down the slide and then we go,’” Lapointe says.
To ease transitions, McCann developed a sweet strategy: doling out yogurt-covered raisins as pre-emptive rage insurance. “If I gave Casey a treat in advance of leaving the museum, before he was upset, then we never got to a tantrum,” she says. But what if you’ve exhausted your supply of purse treats? First things first: Make sure she’s safe and not harming herself or others. Then wait it out. Be a reassuring presence until she has calmed down, says Kavoukian. “Your child needs to feel emotionally and physically safe so her anger can melt.” When Natasha Herron’s typically laid-back three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Jasmine went into meltdown mode, Herron instinctively scooped her up and took her to a dark bedroom. “She was flailing, kicking, pulling my hair—everything,” Herron says. She urged her daughter to breathe, exaggerating her own breaths until she followed. “After about three minutes, the tantrum just stopped, and she looked up and said, ‘That was weird, wasn’t it?’” Herron laughed and agreed.
Tempting as it may be to try to reason with a raging child, just don’t. “No explanations. You can talk later,” Lapointe says. A debriefing could happen afterward, even the next day. Identifying the emotions your kid feels when she’s calm can help make these episodes less scary. Brainstorm ways to help her feel more in control the next time: counting to 10, squeezing a squishy ball, hitting a pillow, drawing or, Herron’s tactic, doing exaggerated breathing. “Now that she’s a bit older, our tantrum code word is ‘Darth Vader.’ It always seems to break the spell—she just laughs and says, ‘I don’t want to breathe like Darth Vader!’”
Tip Any overwhelming sensation—fun, fear, frustration, noise, hunger—can trigger feelings kids don’t have the skills to handle. When should you worry? Look for changes in frequency, degree and intensity. If tantrums are derailing daily activities or if your kid is displaying harmful behaviour, it’s time to seek help.
A version of this article appeared in our May 2016 issue, titled "Anger management", pg. 46.