We tend to work on a common belief that tantrums are bad, we try all manner of things to get our children to be ‘good’ which in its self is not wrong, but when we mistake normal childhood behaviour of exploring, learning and pushing boundaries as naughtiness or don’t appreciate that children are sometimes not in control of their off-track behaviour we miss the opportunities to help them build ways of coping with big emotions.
We also beat ourselves up thinking we must be falling in some way as parents.
I know I have felt a failure many times as a mother when my Son’s behaviour has been off-track, but once I started to learn about tantrums I relaxed my approach, I seen them as normal, important and healthy – oh and yes annoying still.
In Part I of this blog series I explore Six Triggers to off-track behaviour, when we understand what they are we can lighten the load, especially for those ‘same ones - same times’ for example bedtime, the supermarket shop and leaving the house – I’m sure you have some of your own ‘same ones - same times’
In part II, I explore the different types of tantrums as they require a different response and in part III I detail my top three ways to support them.
The Six Triggers
#1 – Tiredness
While we can’t blame everything on tiredness I can give it a good go! Sleep deprivation is associated with imbalances in the autonomic nervous system which regulates bodily arousal, if this system is working properly all good, but if it is out of sync we end up with a situation of over-arousal, like hunger if our children are tired and his need is not being met, their blood sugars are effected and tiredness can intensify negative feelings too, so when a child takes your child’s yellow crayon they were about to use, your child goes into a tantrum - when usually they would be mildly annoyed about it.
Once a child is tired, they find it hard to concentrate on anything, eating, listening, thinking, they wonder why I am feeling this way, a quote from my own Daughter just before bedtime on holiday, she was crying and giddy and just off-track and full of big feelings about something I couldn’t phantom she said “I can’t explain my feelings, I feel funny” and then she squealed and cried for a while (while I cuddled), she is 7 and was tired due to a few nights of later bedtimes and the daily routine was out of sorts and her brother was horrible to her and she needed to release everything prior to sleep coming. Mostly none of these things would have bothered her too much at her age, but throw in tiredness and it was a different story.
Just an extra 30 mins sleep per night can result in improved behaviour in your child through-out the day.
#2 – Hunger
I turn into a grumpy and nasty person when I am hungry – what about you? Well this hunger monster plays havoc with our children's emotions too, usually linked to their sugar levels, if the sugar levels are too low her body will respond by releasing hormones, yes you got it... cortisol and adrenaline! they are designed to regulate blood sugars, this is the body trying to keep in balance, but the high surge in these hormones and if you child already has a build-up in the day due to limited physical activity and/or lack of sleep you have an unhealthy overload which can equal agitation, aggression, tantrums and such.
For some children what they are eating can have an impact on their behaviour, children who have food allergies or sensitivities for example, and all children who are eating chocolate and sweets on an empty stomach, this is due to the surge in blood sugars then insulin kicking in to lower sugars causing a crash 30 mins after the sugary foods have been eaten.
Some foods additives can impact hyperactivity, so it can be a worthwhile task to check labels and keep a food diary for a couple of weeks to see if there is any pattern and any foods which need limiting, cutting out or given at a different time of the day.
#3 – It’s Developmental
Society often has unrealistic expectations of our children (which is pushed onto parents) with lots of rules about how they should behave, but some tantrums are out of their control, this is in part due to how their brains are wired, the upstairs brain, the part which is responsible for logic, reason and thinking is very underdeveloped infact it is not fully developed until around 25-30 years of age – exactly wow right.
So really if we keep in mind that how they are behaving is linked to how they are feeling, and these strong feelings stop them being able to think rationally, and in particular hear what we are saying to them, it makes sense to get in close and cuddle them through these feelings, or use calming strategies such as breathing deeply in and slowly out, I like to use a prop to help like bubbles, windmills or a hoberman sphere for this.
Off-track behaviour is often out of their control, the upstairs brain is not fully developed until around 25-30 years of age!
This does not mean we don’t correct the off-track behaviour if it needs to be corrected, but we do this once everyone is calm and the thinking part of the brain (which is still very immature) is back online.
#4 – Broken Connection
It is normal for the connection between a child and a caregiver to be broken several times in the day, for example while Mummy is on the phone or making dinner, we can’t be with our children giving them undivided attention 24/7 but if a child does not get appropriate recognition from their caregiver this results in a child seeking attention and if it is not given she will find ways to get it with off-track behaviour, this is not a criticism, I have observed this in my own family, we live in a time precious world and everyone wants a part of you….I totally get that. This attention seeking behaviour often rears its ugly head at bedtime.
Interestingly cortisol builds up gradually during the day, too much and it results in overactive, hyper and overtired children that then display off-track behaviour of jumping about, climbing up things and so on, the ways that the body keeps it in balance is to sleep, be physical and find connection with a loving caregiver. This is why I recommend special time, physical games and regular naps/bedtimes depending on age, these are my game changers.
Cortisol builds up gradually during the day, one of the ways the body keeps it in balance is to sleep, be physical and find connection with a loving caregiver
#5 – Emotional Release
Think of it in this way, your child is learning how to do something, but he can’t do it, he has tried a few ways, you see big feelings building up and make some well-meaning suggestions, only to be told, “no, I can do it”……he really won’t give up, but soon he runs out of ideas and his feelings overwhelm his ability to think, because he feels safe he begins to tantrum, to release the emotion of frustration. This is ok to show these big feelings, this is not him being naughty, a parent who can warmly move in and listen to these feelings can help their child recover quicker.
Because he feels safe he begins to tantrum
These big emotions, might be fear, frustration, disappointment, confusion, anger or whatever, but they are like farts better out than in!
#6 – Lack of Structure
We all take comfort in knowing the routine, structure and what’s expected of us, sure it doesn’t need to be strict by the minuet routines, but when children are left not knowing what is coming next it can make them feel insecure and as you have read this can activate parts of his primitive brain and off-track behaviour comes, adults also feel insecure in the same ways. I notice this most when we are on holidays like Christmas time, towards the end, the lack of normal structure is sending my kids over the edge and we can’t wait to get back to normal.
I suggest things like a morning and evening routine, meals at around the same time most days, the same carers on the same days when possible, for example Granny and Grandad always comes on a Tuesday, we always go to nursery on a Wednesday, mummy always does bedtime on Weekends and Daddy on Weekdays, this is what works for us, but your situation might need a different approach, especially if shift working is something to consider. I mentioned before that off-track behaviour often rears its ugly head at bedtime. One of the easiest ways to support this is with the right bedtime routine, one which boosts connection, gives structure and allows the opportunity for emotional release if needed.
You can download a copy of how I structure a bedtime routine with my one-to-one clients for FREE here
Hand in Hand Parenting: Tantrums and Indignation
Margot Sunderland: What every parent needs to know
Food Standards Agency: Food Additives