I dressed my toddler like a little lady and took her shopping for a wedding gift in a shop full of glass and crystal. She reached out to touch something sparkly and I panicked, "No! Don't touch!" I said quickly and firmly as I reached for her. SMACK! She threw herself flat on her back on the hard floor. The sound I heard was her curly head hitting the ground like a melon.
She writhed like she was possessed by an alien. Every head in the busy store turned, and when she opened her mouth the sound that came out wasn't human."She does this," I tried to explain to the other shoppers as I scooped her flailing body off the floor and rushed out the door. Within a few minutes the screaming had stopped, her nose was wiped and it was as if the possession by aliens had passed. But, as a mother I now had Post Tantrum Stress Disorder. I was sure the alien was waiting inside my little darling for the next time we were in a public place.
Later, I was able to attend a training on how children's brains develop. I was thrilled to learn that my toddler was normal, not possessed by aliens, and that someday life on my mother ship would return to normal. Here is what I learned. The good news, our children have brains. The bad news is when our children are born their brains are still rapidly developing and will continue to develop as they grow. Being half-baked creates behavior challenges. Each child's brain has:
- An old brain or an area where instincts are housed.
- An area of the brain that controls the urge to fight, take flight or freeze when frightened.
- A storage area for memory.
- An area for problem solving.
- An area of the brain that controls emotions and behavior also called the Prefrontal Cortex. This is the last area of the brain to develop.
All of these areas in the brain communicate with each other. When a child enters a full-blown tantrum, communication can shut down between the areas of your child's brain. What does that mean to you? It means that if you are trying to talk and reason with a tantrumming child, it is probably not getting in at all. They may not remember a word you say. Not only are their brains not taking in what you are saying, they probably don't understand how they are feeling or what they are upset about.
Children have fears about the world and what they don't comprehend. They may feel like flushing the toilet is sending away a part of themselves or that when you put on a mask you magically become a monster. Toddlers do not understand "pretend" versus "real."
An article published on Parenting.com called, "Toddler Temper Tantrums" explains what happens in a toddler's brain when they have a full-blown tantrum or alien possession. This feeling of heightened arousal causes the body to release cortisol, known as the "fight or flight" hormone. Maybe it should be called "tantrum juice." Cortisol increases blood pressure, speeds up breathing rates and may lead to confused or unclear thinking. (Sound like anyone you know?) This anxiety is developmentally typical in moderation. So, knowing that your child's brain is having a short meltdown and that during his alien possession he is not thinking clearly, what can you do to comfort and help your child?
First, work on regulating your own breathing, body language and tone. Your calm demeanor can be contagious. Model how you want your child to be. Children often mirror our behavior.
If your child is flailing, arms and legs flying, don't get hurt and don't let her hurt herself. Keep a safe space or timeout spot in your home. If you are able, place your child there until she is calm. If she is yelling at you, let her know you can't hear her until she talks nicely.
Hold your child or be near your child until his breathing has slowed, his eyes are open, and he seems to be 'present' or aware of his surroundings. Speak softly and calmly until you can tell he is able to listen.
When your child begins to be present and aware, it is time to teach her. Using a calm and soft tone explain to her what you need. For example, "I would love to buy you all the toys in the store, but I can't. I need you to help me by being good while I shop so we can get food for our dinner." Focus on what you want to see or have her do.
After the tantrum, give your child a direction he can understand. For example, "Hold my hand in the store."
If the tantrum is prolonged and accompanied by nightmares or other behaviors seek professional help.
Howcast video, "How to deal with a screaming child while shopping,"gives excellent step-by-step instructions for handling your own shopping alien invasion. Finally, if you have Post Tantrum Stress Disorder, remember this will pass. As children grow older, are better able to communicate and have further brain development, the tantrums will end. Or at least you will get a break until it is time for them to borrow the keys to your car.