How a Child's Brain Works When They Have a Tantrum

Understanding how a child's brain works when they have a tantrum will allow us to adjust our adult expectations. Learn more.
How a Child's Brain Works When They Have a Tantrum

Last update: 05 November, 2021

At first glance, tantrums give us the impression of capricious behavior. However, neurosciences have made their contributions to understanding how a child’s brain works when they have a tantrum.

In reality, children resort to this type of emotional outburst because they don’t have the necessary resources to express what’s happening to them in another way. This is because the brain of little ones is still developing and therefore, we must be their guides in this and in all the learning of life.

How a child’s brain works when they have a tantrum

Taking the metaphor of the neuropsychologist Álvaro Bilbao, the brain is a “three-in-one” organ and different structures coexist in different degrees of evolution:

  1. The reptilian brain: This is responsible for our survival and therefore, it’s guided through instincts in order to carry out vital functions, such as breathing.
  2. The emotional brain: As its name implies, it’s responsible for facilitating our emotions in order to distinguish what we like from what we don’t.
  3. The rational brain: This allows us to access organization, planning, and decision-making.

During the first three years of life, the reptilian brain and the emotional brain predominate. From then on, the rational brain begins to occupy a more important role.

Therefore, when a child’s angry, it’s difficult to expect them to reason like an adult and we need to think of strategies that allow us to make contact with the child’s emotional and reptilian brain.

In addition, at such times, cortisol is present in the blood, which is the hormone responsible for alertness and stress. For this reason, we need to understand that behind the infant’s behavior, there’s much more than will.

A young boy having a temper tantrum.

It may interest you: 5 techniques to calm tantrums

What to do when a child has a tantrum

Now that we know that tantrums are a possible and expected form of emotional expression in young children, we must distinguish those appropriate measures from those that are inappropriate in order to handle them.

1. Allow children time to unwind and calm down

If the tantrum is ongoing, it’s important to let the child vent. This overflow comes to an end at some point and there’s no use trying to speed up the timing due to our own discomfort.

When adults get anxious about a tantrum, we get angrier than the child. And instead of calming them down, we add more tension to the scene.

It’s difficult, but being patient, calm, and understanding are the only valid tools for these moments.

2. Be available at all times

Little ones don’t yet have the ability to regulate themselves and adults act as a scaffold so that they can achieve it. If we adapt to them when they need it and give them respect and empathy, children will be able to understand their emotions little by little and control their behaviors.

It’s key to know the preferences of our children, as some children require physical contact in these circumstances, while others reject it completely.

3. Anticipate events

Knowing children helps us avoid situations that frustrate or anger them. For example, if we know that they take a nap at a certain time, it’s best not to organize activities for them at that time of the day.

Many tantrums are related to unmet basic needs, such as food, rest, security, and affection.

4. Offer a lesson from what happened

Once calm is restored, it’s time to offer a lesson. Being aware of what happened helps them understand their emotions and adopt skills to manage them.

5. Avoid threats, manipulation, and violence

It’s common to hear a parent tell their child: “Either stop crying or I’m leaving you alone.” But the moment children have an emotional outburst is when they need their parents the most. So this strategy only creates distance with your little one and shows misunderstanding on the part of the adults.

There are children who need to release their frustrations physically and sometimes they kick or hit. For your own safety and that of other people, this type of behavior shouldn’t be accepted and should be redirected to other more appropriate ones. For example, letting them hit or throw a pillow on the floor under certain conditions.

An angry toddler girl.

Understand the why beyond the how

If we stop to think for a moment we will discover a whole catalog of qualifiers for these childish excesses: fits, meltdowns, scenes, outbursts, among others. Most of them are pejorative and adult-centered.

Helping a child in the midst of an emotional crisis requires infinite patience, which is extremely difficult at times. However, it’s the only healthy way to help them regain their calm and to teach them that they can express what’s happening to them in another way.

Emotional intelligence is an aspect of development that we must begin to work on with our children from infancy.

Finally, it’s important to understand that all children are different and they don’t have the same abilities as adults to ask for what they need.

Therefore, understanding how a child’s developing brain works when they have a tantrum allows us to tailor our adult expectations to their age and emotional resources.

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  • Taipe Moreno, M. A. (2019). Propuesta didáctica para el manejo de la ira en niños de 5 a 6 años dirigida a padres de familia (Bachelor’s thesis, PUCE-Quito).
  • Bilbao, Alvaro (2015) El cerebro del niño explicado a los padres. Plataforma Actual.
  • Seitun, Maritchu (2013), Capacitación emocional para la familia. Grijalbo.
  • Bisquerra Alzina, R. (2003). Educación emocional y competencias básicas para la vida. Revista de Investigación Educativa21(1), 7–43. Recuperado a partir de https://revistas.um.es/rie/article/view/99071