Understanding your child’s tantrums and meltdowns

If you are a parent I am sure you have experienced your child’s inevitable tantrums, meltdowns, mystifying shifts in mood, totally embarrassing and dramatic public displays of emotions at the most inappropriate of situations. You do your best to calm your child, trying to keep your sanity intact at the same time. But have you ever wondered what might be going on physiologically inside your child’s brain that causes such strong reactions? Understanding what is happening in your child’s brain when they are throwing tantrums, having meltdowns or simply too upset to hear a word you are saying, may shed some light into what they are going through at such moments. Instead of emotionally reacting to the child’s meltdown, you may be able to see their situation with empathy and react in a more informed manner. So here is a very basic Brain 101 for you.

In simple language, the front part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex (the ‘smart’ part of our brain) which takes care of decision making, planning, reasoning, moderating social and other complex cognitive behaviors. This part of the brain in children is still a work-in-progress and gradually gets fine-tuned as they grow older. The amygdala (the ‘alarm’ part of the brain) located in the limbic system is located towards the lower back part of the brain and is responsible for emotions, emotional response, and motivation. This primitive part of the brain gets activated (within milliseconds) when our safety is threatened and primes our body for fight or flight, which is crucial for our survival. For eg., when we hear our bedroom window breaking in the middle of a quiet night our amygdala prepares our body in an instant for fight or flight. At such times, the alarm part of our brain acts much quicker and is more powerful than our prefrontal or smart part of the brain. There is no time to think logically – our body simply instinctively responds to the danger. Now, the amygdala gets activated not only when we face danger but also when we encounter things that greatly upset us. So when your child gets uncontrollably upset at not being able to eat that candy right before bed time, her amygdala has taken control and caused an instinctual, automatic emotional response that does not see logic. It has overpowered the prefrontal cortex and at this point no amount of logical explaining is going to help the child calm down….not at least until the emotional arousal caused by the amygdala simmers down.

What can you do to help with this simmering down? Stay tuned for my next article on ways to help with this process.


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