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Taming Your Kids’ Tantrums

Sarah Chana Radcliffe

How to handle your child’s tantrums without losing your cool, plus when emotional outbursts are a sign of a bigger problem

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

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Even though you can’t really blame a child for his out-of-control behavior, you certainly can’t condone it. If temper tantrums go unchecked, they only lead to more meltdowns, often with increasing frequency and intensity

F or seven-year-old Asher, nearly everything is a trigger of some kind, a reason for him to start yelling, hitting, or throwing things around. It could be that his brother is holding onto a toy for a few seconds too long, that his mother has denied him permission to play outside, or that tonight’s dinner isn’t to his liking. Whatever it is, Asher can’t just shrug his shoulders and move on. Instead, he responds like a wounded animal, howling in distress.

His parents aren’t sure whether he’s in unmanageable pain or whether he’s just behaving badly, perhaps even being manipulative. They’re at a loss as to how to help him.

Bayla, a 15-year-old, has a similar difficulty with out-of-control behaviors. She’s easily provoked into emotional overwhelm. But instead of throwing objects around the room, she hurls hurtful

words at her mother: threats, verbal abuse, tirades, and melodramatic discourses on the futility of life. Her mom’s refusal to shell out money for a high-end pair of shoes can initiate a flood of vile words.

Only one of two specific things can put an end to the onslaught: mom’s change of heart, or the passing of many exhausting hours. Mom’s PTSD-like symptoms often lead to a quick, albeit expensive, change of heart; many times, she just can’t tolerate the alternative.

Do these two youngsters sound like any children you know? There’s usually at least one kid in every family who’s prone to temper tantrums. And we’re not talking about toddlers here. It’s normal for children age six and younger to have meltdowns; the behavior usually fades with time as they develop sophisticated communication skills and learn to deal with disappointment. We’re talking about older children and teens who get set off by the slightest thing and respond with a torrent of whining, screaming, throwing, kicking, or worse.

Raising an Explosive Child

Although people are quick to blame parents for a child’s out-of-control behavior, parents do not generally cause a child to have meltdowns. Interestingly, the child himself is also not to blame for his tantrums. Although someone witnessing the outburst might call the kid manipulative, controlling, or attention-seeking, the truth is that — as Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, puts it — “your child’s explosive behavior is unplanned and unintentional and reflects a physiologically based developmental delay in the skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance.”


In other words, the tendency to overreact to minor frustration is largely driven by the child’s physical makeup — her genetic biological profile or acquired brain condition. Sometimes, inborn mental health conditions can also lead to poor emotional regulation and impulsivity.

For those born with low frustration tolerance and undeveloped flexibility, everyday challenges can create a sense of urgency bordering on panic. When this happens, the “flight or fight” part of the brain takes over, creating an “act now, think later” reaction. During a tantrum, the higher cortical functioning in the brain — which enables people to consider cause and effect and anticipate the consequence of one’s speech and actions, among other things — shuts off completely. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 580)

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