To help a toddler in the throes of a tantrum, or a child in the agony of sheer panic, it is crucial to understand what is happening to them physiologically, and to keep in mind that they are hating that moment just as much as we are! Most of us try to reason with the distressed child, when in fact, that very act fuels the fire and amplifies the tantrum’s intensity. So what is a tantrum exactly?

A tantrum is an expression of bubbling emotions that the child is unable to work through rationally. It’s overwhelming. Toddlers build up stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline as they are faced with the stresses and challenges of daily life. To diffuse them, toddlers can move, cry, yawn, and sweat. As adults, we have additional discharge mechanisms for those biochemicals, such as thinking and talking through things. Toddlers aren’t so lucky.

The toddler’s immature frontal cortex (left, logical side of the brain that likes words) can’t yet override their emotional centres (right, impulsive side of the brain) to process strong emotions verbally. Instead, to release the physiological residue of their fears and frustrations, toddlers tantrum (Markham, 2012, p. 102). They don’t enjoy it. They would much rather feel connected and cherished but when their emotions hijack them, their brain development isn’t sufficient to maintain rational control. Their physiology helps them restore equilibrium by having a meltdown to release all those feelings and the accompanying biochemicals. A toddler who is having a tantrum feels alone, out of control, like nobody gets him, and like the world is the enemy.

A child in a state of panic isn’t much different. She feels alone, out of control, like nobody gets her, and like the world is the enemy. An event takes place (the trigger), and her body gets tricked into thinking she is in extreme danger. Her body is flooded with the same hormones and chemicals it would be if her life was in danger, except it’s not in danger (perhaps she spelled her name wrong and her teacher casually pointed it out). Blood (up to 80%!) exits the forebrain, leaving her unable to think, and gets relocated to the chest (to get the heart pumping), to the arms (to optimize fighting conditions), and to the legs (to optimize fleeing conditions). Because the danger is perceived, and not real, there IS no need for an attack or an escape. So the chemicals, the hormones, the physiological amp-up don’t get put to action; no discharge occurs. The child’s body has just prepared her for fight or flight, but there is NOTHING to fight, NOTHING to flee. Even though her body wrongly identified the presence of a threat, the child needs to return to a state of equilibrium. These life-saving danger cues need to leave her body…hence the panic attack and ensuing kicking, punching, scratching, running, throwing, hiding, harsh words, etc. (See Anxiety — Why It Stops Us In Our Tracks And Takes Over Our Life).

So whether a toddler is having a tantrum or a child is having a panic attack, the body’s physiological organisation is similar. Keeping in mind these physiological conditions, we can take steps to help the hijacked little human reclaim their body.

The Missing Piece – The Sealed Bucket

Most of us are pretty reasonable beings, and we can give our child 100 reasons to believe they are safe and there is no need to be so worked up. Why doesn’t it work?

When the child is in emotional overload, the logical (left) side of the brain, the one that likes words, shuts down and becomes inaccessible. The impulsive (right) side of the brain, the one that can move to a beat and recognize faces, takes over. In that state, the child cannot process words or follow logic. In fact, the child can barely hear words, physically! In that moment, any amount of reasoning is as futile as trying to teach algebra to someone who is certain a hungry lion is standing immediately behind them. They. Won’t. Get it! However, the impulsive (right) side of the brain is still firing. In fact, it’s in turbo mode. That means the child can still read our facial expressions, and detect the tone of our voice.

Imagine the logical (left) brain is a bucket. You can fill it with words, facts, knowledge, skills, strategies, and logic. When emotional hijack occurs (the tantrum, the panic), it’s like putting a sealed lid on that bucket. The child temporarily can no longer access what’s inside. It’s a physiological problem, not an attitude! And that lid? It can only be opened from the inside; by the child.

To remove the lid, the child must feel safe (seen, heard, understood). So our job is to convey to the child the message that she is safe, while bypassing the left brain. That means connecting without relying on logic, and without relying on words. Until safety is established through a connection with us, we are part of that danger the child perceives. We are the enemy, whereas our goal is to become an ally.

That’s right, we are a perceived enemy and our comforting words are useless, yet the only way out is to establish safety. Here’s where we can get crafty. The key to establishing safety when the bucket is sealed is the straw. We can’t remove the bucket’s lid but we can stick a straw through it.

Establishing Safety – Inserting the Straw

To establish safety (inserting the straw) without relying on the left brain, we need to work with what the child has access to, the right brain. We can do that with: our presence, our facial expression, our tone of voice. Seeing us there by their side despite their big emotions, with a look on our face that says we care deeply, and a tone that confirms the message on our face, slowly establishes safety and thus puts a straw through the sealed lid on the bucket. Once the straw is inserted, we have verbal contact – we can put in some carefully chosen words to allow the child’s feelings of safety to grow until he can remove the lid.

We still look suspicious, but the child begins to see that perhaps we are more ally than enemy. It’s still a delicate operation – a straw does not have the same input capacity as an open bucket. At this point, it is crucial to be selective with our words. We need to be clear, concise, and repetitive. Also, our tone needs to be gentle but firm (so the temporarily mostly deaf child can hear). So how do we do that? In real life? Step-by-step? (Read On)!

Markham, Laura, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

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