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The Two Kinds of Tantrums

Photography: Loren Stow
What is a temper tantrum?

Some temper tantrums are violent storms of emotion which occur because your child's thinking-brain is not yet sufficiently developed (if you missed the post on amygdala hijacking, go here), while other tantrums are efforts by your child to manipulate a situation.  As parents we all feel helpless, frustrated and overwhelmed when our child throws a tantrum, but sometimes, the surge of emotions that your child goes through are also scary for him to experience.

Firstly, it is good to understand that temper tantrums are actually important experiences that aid in brain development - they are great opportunities to teach your child to develop the neural pathways in their brain that will enable them to manage stress when they're older.

Two different kinds of tantrums

As the post heading suggests, there are two different kinds of tantrums, each requiring their own specific reaction from you as a parent. Simply put, in the case of a Distress Tantrum you need to move towards your child and in the case of a Little-Nero Tantrum, you need to move away from your child.

When to respond softly and with understanding

The first type of tantrum - a distress tantrum - happens when your child's lower (emotional) brain is affected (as in the case of an amygdala hijacking). In this instance, your child has experienced a loss, frustration or disappointment so incredible to them that they cannot stop the emotions that erupt from them.

When your child has a distress tantrum, there are excessively high levels of stress chemicals racing through your child's body and brain. Your child is in genuine distress and as a parent you need to model for your child how to cope with these intense and scary feelings.

When your child has a distress tantrum, their ability to talk or listen is severely limited - their emotions literally take over. It is important to understand this because talking to (and trying to reason with) your child at this time is futile. You need to move towards your child, hold them, and soothe them. Your goal should be to meet their feelings of loss, frustration or disappointment with sympathy and understanding.

By doing this, you are developing your child's ability to regulate stress in his higher thinking-brain. If you hold your child, you are telling her that you are there for her. Speak softly, using simple words, and your child will begin to feel safe again as she realises that you can help her to understand and deal with these huge feelings she has.

Why a fixed approach is not advisable

If you adopt a single fixed approach to tantrums (walking away or time-out for example), you may loose an important opportunity to teach your child how to handle stress appropriately. In addition, imagine how reassuring it is for your child to know that mommy or daddy can understand these intense storms of emotion that rip through his body and brain. Alternatively, imagine how disturbing it is, when your child is having a genuine distress tantrum, for you to walk away from him... you would never walk away from a friend in true distress, so why would you walk away from your child?

The best way to handle a distress tantrum is to use simple and calm actions, try to distract your child with something interesting (this often helps to reactivate the thinking-brain), hold your child with tenderness, avoid using the time-out technique or sending your child to their room alone, and keep reminding yourself that your child's distress is very real for them.

When a tantrum is unacceptable

On the flip-side of the coin, a Little-Nero Tantrum is the complete opposite. Where a distress tantrum activates your child's emotional center and shuts down the thinking-brain, a little-nero tantrum occurs in your child's thinking-brain. This tantrum is about manipulation - which takes lots of thought.

A Little-Nero Tantrum is about getting what they want through bullying or manipulation - the point of this tantrum is to get a desired response. But how can you tell the two tantrums apart? A Little-Nero Tantrum often has a lack of tears and your child will be able to articulate exactly what they want(remember that with a distress tantrum, your child isn't even able to speak coherently).

Little-Nero Tantrums that are not handled correctly may teach a child to become a bully - a child that believes that they can get their own way all the time. The way in which you handle this tantrum is very different - firstly, if you are certain your child is not having a distress tantrum, walk away. When no one is watching, there is very little point of having a manipulative tantrum! Don't try to reason, argue with or persuade your child, and don't try to negotiate. Be firm and also remind them of the more socially acceptable ways to get the result they want. Use your own method of discipline in this case. But whichever way you choose - be consistent and stand your ground.

When the tantrums spill over into each other

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two types of tantrums and sometimes one tips over into another - a little-nero tantrum can become a distress tantrum. For example, when your child is verbally demanding a sweet and your 'no' is so disappointing that they have a powerful surge of emotions that tips them over into a distress tantrum. 

If you sense genuine pain in your child's tantrum and know that it isn't an act, you need to help her with her feelings. As a parent, your child needs to know that you will not give into demands, but that you are there for them when they are in genuine pain.  All children are programmed to react with intense emotions if they do not get their anticipated reward, especially because their thinking-brain is not yet properly wired.

Common triggers for tantrums

It is also a good idea to recognise 'triggers' for tantrums in your environment. In addition to tiredness and hunger, boredom and under-stimulation is an important trigger for tantrums - have you noticed how your child has fewer tantrums when they're engaged in something interesting? Frustration and disappointment are also two key triggers for tantrums, and coping with these feelings is one of the things that parents need to teach their children.

Dealing with tantrums are not easy - but if you can learn to differentiate between the two different kinds of tantrums and respond to each kind by 'moving towards' or 'moving away' from your child when appropriate - you will start to see results.

The important point to remember once again is that as a parent you should not give into demands, but you should offer yourself in times of great pain and anguish.

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better... we do better

*Practica Parents: It's much easier to comfort rather than to discipline a child, because there are so many different methods of discipline. At the Practica Advisory Service, we advise parents to choose their method of discipline with two important considerations in mind: the method that you use should be one that you will be able to use consistently under pressure, and it should also be one that helps you to stay calm and in control of your emotions during the process.

If you would like to be notified of all new posts via email, please send an email to lizette@practicaprogram.co.za 

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