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Calming Tantrums

Feb 16, 2022
Calming Tantrums

You are basking in a beautiful day at the park, and then suddenly your child’s mood shifts as abruptly as the wind. Crying, an angry outburst, or an all-out tantrum ensues. Let’s look inside the brain and the nervous system for a moment to see what is causing the turbulence. Think of the brain as computer and the nervous system as the network relaying messages to the body. We have a complex upstairs brain in the front of the skull that is responsible for controlling emotion, logic, empathy, reasoning, and morality. We have a downstairs brain or “cave man” brain in the back of the skull to manage breathing, blinking, reactions, and impulses. In a calm state, the upstairs brain is working in sync with the downstairs brain. In a state of heightened distress, the upstairs brain goes offline. When parents react out of their own state of distress, the yelling, threatening, banishing, or spanking begins…(no judgement, I’ve been there). At this point, the child will usually go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. The child can no longer reason or regulate emotions. Sadly, fear-based discipline adds stress to the nervous systems of both parent and child. When this cycle perpetuates over time, the child’s nervous system begins to dysregulate which leads to more frequent negative behaviors. A dysregulated nervous system can cause symptoms such as poor attention, anxiety, poor memory, insomnia, exhaustion, or depression. Please note, that conditions that affect the nervous system can be due to a variety of factors such as immune system disorders, trauma, infection, toxic exposure, or genetic or metabolic problems. This can occur in both parents and children.

           How can you calm your child’s nervous system as you parent? The first step is to be proactive and connect as you parent. Did you know that all behavior is a readable signal? Sometimes, we feel like a behavior is coming from “out of nowhere,” yet this is not the case. Let’s rewind to the beautiful sunny day at the park. Your child was enjoying herself until she snapped when you asked her to stop playing to have lunch. Ask yourself a few questions in this moment. Is your child too: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired? Next, connect with your child by coming down to eye level, and listen to your child. Connection calms the brain and nervous system. Look into your child’s beautiful eyes and repeat what she is saying to help her feel understood. If she won’t talk, you can say what you imagine she is feeling and ask her if you have it right. As you connect, encourage your child to breathe deeply. The pressure of a hug will aid in calming if the child is willing. Wait until she is calm and receptive before teaching or transitioning. It is important to note that kids need to be receptive to learn. Have you noticed the way you “go blank” when you are in a highly stressful moment? We simply cannot think or learn when the upstairs brain is offline. Connection is vital to move kids from being reactive to calm, receptive, and able to learn.



Overview of Nervous System Disorders in Children (2021, October 6).

Retrieved from

Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain

          Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.

          Bantam Books, New York.

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