Tantrums are common in childhood development especially in children under the age of 5. Tantrums result from an overwhelming flow of emotions that the brain is not yet equipped to manage. So, instead of putting their emotions into words to get what they want or need, they often substitute throwing their toys, kicking, biting, screaming, or even pulling their own hair.
Emotional regulation usually develops by the age of 5 or 6 and is a cornerstone of what is known as Executive Function (EF). EF is primarily managed by the frontal lobes and is responsible for reasoning, organizing one’s thoughts, emotional regulation, attention, and more.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a misnomer of sorts as no deficit of attention actually exists. Children and adults with ADHD can pay attention to a wide variety of stimuli especially if it is highly stimulating. However, paying attention to low stimuli subject matter is quite difficult. Therefore, attention is not deficit, it is simply redirected constantly or fleeting. This too is a problem of Executive Function.
Since ADHD is closely associated with decreased EF performance, parents often see their ADHD child throwing tantrums well into their teens. It is indeed related to the child’s brain not properly managing the flood of emotions that arise during personal conflicts, homework, trauma, overexcitement, or unfamiliar situations. To be clear, ADHD does not cause tantrums. Tantrums are the product of weak EF associated with an ADHD diagnosis.
So what is one to do?
First, use your EF! Process the tantrum knowing that it’s caused by weak EF that is not going to get fixed on the spot. Speak clearly and calmly.
Second, don’t give in to tantrums. Doing so reinforces the child’s brain to repeat a tantrum as it gets the results they want.
Third, if your child challenges a specific rule like buying things at the grocery store, don’t argue with them as it escalates the tantrum. Instead, calmly repeat the rule firmly, but not angrily. Say, “We agreed, if I allowed you to come in, you would not ask to buy candy.”
Using positive redirection often helps. You might say, “No John. Not today.” Or, “No thank you, John.” That’s all you need to say as trying to reason with them in the midst of a tantrum just escalates the turmoil. Ignore the tantrum even if others around you give you awkward looks. Ignoring the tantrum teaches the child that throwing a tantrum will not achieve the results they want.
Once the child has calmed, you can talk through the rule. This is usually later, perhaps on the ride home.
If you lose your cool, your child then learns that it’s appropriate to respond to yelling with yelling. A tantrum with a tantrum.
Put your EF in charge and don’t hit, yell, threaten, or slam objects. It’s tantamount to pouring gasoline on a fire. Violent response can make your child fearful and teaches them to respond with aggression. They may even tell you the don’t feel loved or that you’re too critical.
Be the adult with good EF
Once the tantrum has diminished, review the rule that was broken clearly and calmly. Explain the consequences for breaking rules. Your consistent use of calm reinforcement of the rules will succeed.
Review ways that you expect your child to behave during certain situations like holiday gatherings, grocery store visits, parties, etc. This helps develop good EF.
Let your EF take control. Good EF allows you to show compassion and understanding and teaches your child to use it as well.
Use de-escalation techniques to keep your head which will teach your child to do the same.
Play Attention can help your child develop emotion regulation. Call 800-788-6786 or click here to schedule your 1:1 consultation.