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Tantrums Part 1: Why Don’t They Just TELL ME What is Wrong? What Am I Supposed to Do?

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Tantrums Part 1: Why Don’t They Just TELL ME What is Wrong? What Am I Supposed to Do?


Look Familiar?
Look Familiar?

EVERY child goes through a time when they throw themselves on the floor (seemingly out of no where) and scream until they are literally RED the face. And for every tantruming child there is usually a parent close by confused, overwhelmed and experiencing a strong desire to lie next to their child and scream along with them. The aforementioned questions are two of the most common questions I get asked in regard to tantrums.

Why don’t they just TELL ME what is wrong?

The short answer is, they can’t.

Now the long answer:

A Quick Lesson in Biology (super quick I promise!)

The Amygdala

  • One of the first parts of the brain to form
  • The reptilian brain – Fight, Flight, Freeze
  • Associated with deep emotions and fear


The Frontal Lobe

  • One of the last parts of the brain to form, is not fully developed until mid-20’s
  • Associated with rational thinking
  • When the brain is in the fight, flight or freeze response then the frontal lobes go “offline”
Frontal Lobe
Frontal Lobe

Anxiety can trigger the reptilian brain to take over. If a child is feeling overwhelmed with their emotions, their anxiety is high and their ability to reason is non- existent. It may take as long as three FULL minutes AFTER calming for the frontal lobe to come back “online”. Which means, once a child’s emotions are so elevated negotiation and discipline are pointless – they are physically incapable of comprehending a thing you are saying!


But my child is a toddler, what in the world are they so worried or upset about?

Good Question!

Parents often don’t realize that children have the same feelings as adults, same intensity, but smaller body a.k.a smaller container. Think about a time when you were just inundated with a feeling of sadness, disappointment, fear, or rage. To an adult these feelings are overwhelming at best, but to a kid it is intolerable.

Not only to they have the same onslaught of emotion they feel as if they have no control of them. As far as they know, it’s as if the feelings are happening TO them.  Additionally, they don’t yet have to words to identify or explain what is going on. It doesn’t make sense. So they are having these HUGE feelings that feel as if they are attacking them and they have no idea how to tell you what is going on. THEN to add insult to injury, they have no sense of time and for all they know this is not their current state of being and it is NEVER GOING TO END!


OK, So WHAT do I do? I feel just as overwhelmed and helpless as they are!


Three things to remember:

  1. Name the feeling
  2. Stay calm
  3. Negotiations are pointless

Naming the Feeling

  • As the person your child looks up to for knowledge and guidance it is important that you help them identify what is going on – give them the words:

“You are very angry right now! I can see that it is important for you to let me know that you are angry!”

“Your screaming shows me that you are angry, when you cry it also shows me that you might be sad or scared too!”

“It must be very frustrating that I cannot give you what you want right now.”

Stay Calm

Deep Breaths!
Deep Breaths!

This is HARD! Feelings are overwhelming for children; if you are overwhelmed by their feelings as well, to a child, that is terrifying!Children look to you in order to figure out how they should react, if you don’t know what to do or if you are frustrated, then to a child it is incredibly dysregulating. The belief that “grown-ups” know everything is what fosters a sense of security   and safety in childhood. When speaking to a child during a tantrum always keep your voice low and unthreatening.

Easier said then done!

If this image comes into your head…


then it is time for a TIME-OUT! When you feel your emotions begin to get the better of you – it is time to call time-out, a mommy time-out!Tantrums ARE overwhelming and frustrating, for parents too! – if you feel this way it is OK!! The key is to train yourself to catch the feeling before it erupts and your child ends up duck taped to a wall (I, in no way, endorse this notion)!


Learn to recognize when your frustration level is getting too high and make your child aware of how you are feeling and what you need:

“ It is important to me that I am here for you, but I am starting to get frustrated and upset. I need to take a time-out, but I will come back and be with you once I have calmed down.”

This models to your child the appropriate response for “BIG” feelings. It also shows them that these feelings are ok and normal. By verbalizing your needs to your child in this way, you are not shaming or blaming them for your feelings or their feelings. This also creates boundaries and some separation between you and your child, allowing both individuals to feel taken care of.

And Finally,

Negotiations are pointless!

Recalling that, during a tantrum, your child’s frontal lobe is “offline”. Which means, they are physically unable to listen to any sense of reason, which can cause the parent frustration levels to rise rapidly! Be aware of your own feelings and have compassion for your own anger, allowing yourself to take a time out if needed.

At the end of the day, tantrums are going to happen but the best thing you can do for both you and your child is to be prepared ahead of time and keep in mind that children DON’T come with a manual, you are doing they best you can and tomorrow is another day!

  • If this post was helpful for you, check back for Tantrums Part 2: Identifying the Emotional Needs Being Expressed



Demos, J.N. MA, LCMHC, BCIA-EEG. (2005). Getting Started with Neurofeedback. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

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