Dear Dr. Debbie,
I try my best to ignore my 2-year-old’s tantrums but she does get the best of me at times. What do you suggest for helping me keep my cool while she melts down?
Counting to 10, Then 11
Don’t miss last week’s column Sharing financial challenges with children — Good Parenting
The key to staying calm is to stay in your right mind. That is, the part of your brain that performs rational thinking. The cortex, the uppermost part of the brain’s structure that resembles a wrinkly walnut, is the site of calm, rational thinking. When this part of the brain is activated, you can remember what worked and didn’t work before, calculate the potential merits of various possible choices, and work out the best plan of action. You can also access language to explain your thinking and negotiate an agreeable compromise with others (assuming these others are also rational).
As you may have learned from experience, arguing with your toddler doesn’t get you very far because she only has limited use of her cortex. It works, yes, but at a very basic level. Not until age 25 is the typical brain considered to be mature enough to resist impulsivity and tolerate frustration (fairly reliably, anyway). Decades away from this milestone, a young child can be expected to be at the mercy of “irrational” thinking on a daily basis.
Consider this example. You are out visiting a friend when your darling daughter raises her hand toward the coffee table with an uncapped marker. Her actions, of course, make no sense to a rational mind which can easily see that a piece of paper would make a much better drawing surface. You are able to weigh the merits and demerits of scribbling on your friend’s furniture because of your mature brain and vast life experiences. You can also use your rational mind to instantly spot a suitable piece of paper — a piece of junk mail — and deftly slide it under the marker just in time.
If on the other hand, your emotional brain takes over — “This is so embarrassing! The table will be ruined! I can’t even visit with a friend without a disaster happening! Why can’t this child respect simple rules?” — it will be impossible to see a solution that supports your child’s curiosity about how markers work. Instead, your raised voice and firm grip on her hand signal your daughter’s emotional brain to react with emotion.
Emotional thinking occurs in the amygdalae, a matching pair of almond-shaped organs located on both sides of the brain. During normal development, from infancy through the middle years of childhood, there is a gradual decrease in the powerful emotional thinking that is behind a temper tantrum. The child not only gains more and more control over her emotions, but she also is increasing her ability to remember, to evaluate, and to come up with workable plans to get what she wants, and to accept when she cannot have it.
Think of these two functions — emotional thinking and rational thinking — as each vying for control of the brain. I like to refer to the cortex as “the big nut” and the amygdala as “the little nut.” Obviously, if you stay in your big nut, and are able to strategize to prevent your daughter’s frustrations, her little nut is less likely to take over her brain.
It may help to spend time each day observing her interests and abilities so you can support her explorations in the world without arousing emotions — yours or hers. For example, if markers are among her current interests, you might pack washable markers and a small spiral notebook for close supervision when you go visiting. Your rational mind can easily explain to your friend that your daughter is learning how markers work, and through calm joint decision making, come to an agreement about the best area of her home for your visit. On the other hand, if your friend is not nearly as baby conscious as you have come to be, you could pack other playthings that would be less distracting and perilous.
Typically a tantrum occurs when a toddler is being prevented from doing something she wants to do. Your rational brain can more easily come up with an acceptable alternative than if your little nut takes over. You can prevent her frustration, and yours, by planning ahead for her needs and wants. Curiosity, hunger, fatigue, the need for attention, and impending illness demand adult vigilance and responsiveness.
The more you understand your daughter’s perspective — but with an adult’s rational wisdom — the easier it becomes to divert or prevent a meltdown.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.