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Decoding tantrums

A toddler having an emotional meltdown is one of the most provocative situations that a parent can face. It’s intense, irrational, seems out of the blue, and worst of all, completely out of your control! A study published recently in the journal, Emotion, took an in depth look at the emotions present during a tantrum, and found distinct and predictable patterns in the madness. Most interesting, I thought, was the presence of sadness throughout the tantrum and the predictable passing of the anger (the scientists compared it to a thunderstorm) which is layered on top of sadness at the beginning of a tantrum, but once it passes, the parent has an opportunity to connect with, and soothe the child. Having some scientific data on these “emotional storms” can help parents adopt a stance of observer and practice being present for their child, without getting hooked into what the researchers called the “anger trap” of a tantrum – doing things like asking questions, trying to “reason” with the child, and even teasing the child – only prolong the anger phase.

I facilitate a group for parents based on the Circle of Security curriculum (geared towards children 0 – 5) which aims to give parents a road map to understand their child’s behavior and the emotional needs that drive the behavior. One of the key concepts of Circle of Security is that of “being with” the child’s emotional experience. “Being with” can be difficult because it often means simply being present and emotionally available to your child as they are feeling intense emotions. It means resisting the urge to talk the child out of feeling how they feel, or prematurely trying to cheer the child up, etc., but instead, simply being available to scaffold feelings and mirror feelings back to the child so that the child begins to internalize a sense of security with their parent, and also learns that emotions are safe and can be shared. Most importantly, this concept is about trusting the natural “life cycle” of an emotion which is a valuable lesson for parent and child! This recent study on tantrums supports this approach, and I think this information can help give parents a sense of purpose in using their relaxed presence (or pretending to be relaxed anyway) to support their child in riding out the storm of their tantrum, and then finding a way to reconnect again, and again.

To view the NPR report, complete with video of a tantrum, click here:

For more information on the Circle of Security model, click here:

Thanks for reading!

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