Distress Tantrums

Kids Are for Keeps

Temper tantrums typically occur because connections in a child’s brain have not yet developed in a way that allows for powerful feelings to be managed in socially acceptable ways. Let’s discuss distress tantrums, temper tantrums that are the result of genuine emotional pain.

A distress tantrum is activated by one or more “alarm systems” in the emotional part of the child’s brain. The alarm systems referred to include rage, fear, and separation distress. When these alarms are triggered, the child’s body and brain are flooded with stress chemicals, resulting in an out-of-balance child.

It is important to understand these dramatic changes in the body and brain because during a distress tantrum, the child’s thinking functions and verbal centers, which control comprehension and verbal expression, are unavailable. Expecting to talk to the child or expecting the child to talk his or her feelings is unrealistic. At this time, the child is only able to discharge strong emotions.

The adult’s role during a distress tantrum is to provide comfort while the child is in the throes of these biochemical changes in his or her brain and body. When the adult provides understanding and a calm presence to the child during this distressful time, the child is able to develop important stress-regulating systems and stress-regulating connections in his or her brain. As the child is comforted during one of these tantrums, the adult uses her/his body’s mature arousal system, to help calm and teach the child’s immature arousal system towards stress reduction. When the child receives help for such intense feelings of rage, frustration, and/or distress, the brain is developing pathways that will allow the child to calm her/him down when under stress. This is a learning process, which means the child will learn to have more control over intense emotions over time.

Here are some ideas about how to handle a distress tantrum:

  • PROVIDE SIMPLE CHOICESand do so calmly. For example, if the child is upset about breakfast, ask him if he would rather have orange juice or apple juice. However, be mindful of not overwhelming the child with a barrage of choices. Always provide no more than two choices at a time.
  • PROVIDE DISTRACTION. Distraction engages the area of the brain that promotes curiosity, which can naturally override the rage or distress systems. Curiosity and interest also activate chemicals that reduce stress and promote positive feelings. Distraction is most effective when used before the child’s brain and body are totally out of balance.
  • CUDDLE. If you can feel calm and in control yourself, it can really help to tenderly hold a child in distress and allow the distress tantrum to pass. Before reaching out to hold the child, always ask permission. “May I hold you”; “would you like to sit in my lap”?  Do not assume that the child will feel better if held. Sometimes children need body space to work through strong emotions – which is okay.  Holding the distressed child close and remaining calm allows the agitated child to calm down. The calmness will help bring the child’s brain and body back in balance. Cuddling releases calming chemicals.
  • BE MINDFUL. The distress the child experienced in the moment was real. Young children have a perspective totally different from that of adults. If an older sibling takes a toy from a younger sibling, the younger sibling may view this as a real loss. For a younger child, this loss may mean everything at that moment.
  • ANTICIPATE. Contemplate on the day’s tantrum. Trying to identify the cause of the day’s tantrum can help to prepare for a future incident. Understanding how the child was able to calm down will also help in guiding the child through the distress tantrum. Asking oneself “What can I do now to avoid distress later?” Deciding on what is worth fighting about and where to relax rules and expectations and help alleviate conflicts which may result in tantrum.

Not all tantrums are struggles for power.

— admin