Why do children throw tantrums?


We’ve all had the experience of standing hopelessly by while a three-year old writhes on the floor in the throes of a massive tantrum. Recently I witnessed this in a supermarket, where the desperately embarrassed mother tried hard to convince the child why she couldn’t have sweets and to calm down.  It’s hard for a grandmother to resist giving advice so I moved away but was tempted to tell the young mother that her use of logic and reason were literally falling on deaf ears.   It’s all due to the power of the primitive brain that rules in young children.

            Dr Paul MacLean describes the brain’s structure in terms of three levels operating as one.  The lowest level he called the ‘reptilian brain’. This lies at the very base of the brain and is responsible for essential behaviours such as protecting us from danger, adapting to social groups, instinctively foraging for food, and so on.  The next layer is the ‘mammalian brain which is tied up with our emotions and the highest layer is the ‘thinking brain’, the cortex, which is the seat of our highest forms of functioning.

            Now let’s go back to the screaming child on the floor. At her age, she is still in the grip of the reptilian, non-thinking brain.  She simply hasn’t been alive for long enough to see higher brain levels adequately developed yet.   A desire for a sweet or toy being denied causes her to feel that her interests and even safety are threatened.  Strong emotions flood the brain and a meltdown follows.  At this age, she doesn’t have the intellectual controls that develop as we grow. When the reptilian brain is in control, she doesn’t even have access to those areas of the higher brain that may ordinarily be used to listen to reasonable adults.

            While the despairing mom is trying hard to use words to explain her reasoning to the child and offering some choices, those lower brain levels are simply not able to take in and process the language.   It will need time to calm down, so picking her up, giving her a big hug and moving away as quickly as possible from the situation in silence would be a better alternative.

            This is not the time to cajole, punish or manipulate.  Simply keep your cool and get her out of the situation as quickly as possible.  Not always easy when you have to leave a full trolley behind, but helping your child cope with her overwhelming flood of feelings is the priority here.

            The same reason underlies tantrums at home or anywhere else.  The pain of having to stop an enjoyable activity to have a bath ‘NOW’ is too much for a young brain to bear – so a meltdown occurs.  This is one reason why it is wise to warn children of impending changes.  Tell them that playtime will end in 10 minutes, when it is time to bath.  Then tell them when bathtime is 5 minutes away. This gives them time to adjust to the idea of having to stop playing

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