Toddler Tantrums: Surfing The Emotional Waves

Today’s post is brought to you by Ashleigh Lorenz, LCSW and Certified Infant Toddler Developmental Specialist and full time mommy to two rambunctious kiddos, Haven (9 months) and Tide (3). When not chasing them, she provides parent education and developmental services to 0-3 year olds and their caregivers through Easter Seals as well as clinical social work services for the elderly through a homehealth agency.

Toddler Tantrums: Surfing The Emotional Waves

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The scene is all too familiar. You are having a seemingly pleasant time with your toddler, when suddenly the meltdown of the century ensues.  It turns out it’s physically impossible for your child to hold all 15 of his stuffed animals at one time.  Enter rational mother, bringing logic and calm to the situation as she explains to said son that he has picked up too many animals at once and his arms are not large enough to hold them all. This should clear things up, right?? WRONG! Darling child’s tantrum escalates and the family pet has to be protected from collateral damage.

Children (just like us adults) are emotional beings. However, the way we respond to these emotions in our children can hugely impact how they will respond to us and even how they will learn to deal with their own emotions.

First off, a little anatomy lesson. Our brains are separated into two hemispheres that are functionally and anatomically different. Our left-brain is logical, literal and linguistic (it loves words).  On the other hand, our right brain tends to be more intuitive and emotional, it reacts to non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, eye contact and tone of voice. Our right brain focuses on the emotions associated with an event rather then the left-brain’s big picture focus.  Just as we have differing hemispheres, we also have different brain levels. Our downstairs brain is made up of the limbic region and the brain stem. This area of the brain is very primitive and responsible for basic, automatic functions such as breathing and blinking and also for strong emotions such as fear and anger.  On the other hand, our upstairs brain is made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts.  This is where intricate mental processes take place. The upstairs brain is where planning, empathy and self-control are housed. In terms of development, very young children (specifically 0-3) are right brain dominant. They have not yet mastered the world of language and logic, rather, they live completely in the moment and emotions can sway at the drop of a hat. They are also wired to respond out of their primitive downstairs brain. This explains why we typically get very emotional responses that often seem illogical.  The goal of “whole brain parenting” is to connect our children’s right and left-brain and their upstairs and downstairs brains.

Below are two strategies taken from the amazing book, “The Whole – Brain Child” by Sigel and Bryson (2011) that can help us integrate the logical left side with the emotional right side of the brain.

Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

One night my son began the world’s longest attempt at stalling bedtime. He was thirsty, hungry, itchy, needed to potty, etc.  After I had met his thirsty need and the list continued I knew there was something more happening and chose to try to connect with his feelings before redirecting him to bedtime.  I climbed in bed with him, began to rub his back, looked in his eyes and said “It sure is tough to go to bed sometimes, you would really like to stay up with mommy tonight.” His body softened as he shook his head and I continued by saying, “we need to go to sleep so we can get energy to play in the morning, what do you think would be fun to play with when we wake up.” At this point, my son felt that his emotions had been understood and acknowledged and he was able to accept the directive to quiet down and go to sleep. Now, you may be feeling that my son’s behavior was simply  a manipulation technique to stay awake and that I should have treated it as such. “Whole-brain parenting doesn’t mean letting yourself be manipulated or reinforcing bad behavior. On the contrary, by understanding how your child’s brain works, you create cooperation much more quickly and with far less drama” (Sigel and Bryson 2011).

Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain

An example of the above strategy used to connect the upstairs and downstairs brain was given by the authors Siegel and Bryson (2011).

A mother and her daughter, Sophie, just left the store and on the ride home Sophie angrily states “I hate you, mommy.”  Ouch, my gut response would be to yell back about my daughter being rude and forbid her to utter those words again! However, Sophie’s mom understood it would be more beneficial to try to appeal to and connect her daughter’s upstairs and downstairs brain.  The exchange is below:

Sophie: “I hate you mommy”

Mom: “Wow, you are really mad.”

Sophie: “Yeah! I hate you!”

Mom: “Is it because I didn’t get you that necklace?”

Sophie: “Yes, and you are so mean!”

Mom: “That necklace wasn’t for sale. It is okay if you want to keep feeling upset, but if you’d rather, we can be problem-solvers and think of another idea.”

Sophie: “How do we do that?”

Now that mom has engaged her daughter’s upstairs brain and connected to her angry emotions, her daughter is able to discuss the issue in a way she would not have been able to had her mom allowed her own angry downstairs brain to take over. 

The above strategies are just two techniques to help get you started on the path of whole brain parenting. I am not saying that they will always lead to angelic singing and hugs of reconciliation. After all, at times, children are past the point of return and their emotional waves need to be allowed to crash until they calm down.  However, when we better understand brain development and how to respond to our children’s frustrating behaviors in a way that supports and nurtures this development, we take steps towards raising emotionally healthy, balanced, whole-brain using children.

Book Resources:

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline.

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The Whole – Brain Child

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Check out our Natural Consequences article: The Easy Way Out

 

 

 

4 Comments
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  4. Diana Quintin January 25, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Ashleigh, I was seriously getting ready to get in touch with you to ask for strategies to help get through this stage of never-ending meltdowns. I’ll check out these resources you mentioned. Thanks!