Managing Tantrums According to Science - Happy as a Mother

Managing Tantrums According to Science

with Cindy Hovington, Ph.D.


  • The Effect Big Feelings Have on A Child’s Brain
  • Our Role As A Parent During These Challenging Times
  • The Importance Of Making A Connection With Your Child During A Tantrum

Having to handle our child’s behaviour and big emotions is to be expected, it comes with being a parent. But goodness, it is exhausting. The true work of parenting is being able to regulate ourselves in the face of their big reactions. To better understand what causes our children to react this way, we’ll learn about what’s actually happening in their brains. Today, we are joined by Cindy Hovington to help understand this perspective, discuss tantrums, big emotions, and how to make a connection with your child during this key time.

The Effect Big Feelings Have on A Child’s Brain

“As a young child that emotional part of the brain is functioning very well, so you’re able to express that intense anger or intense sadness. But your frontal part of the brain when it’s receiving all of those emotions says, ‘I have no idea what to do with this, so I’m just going to let it out as a 100% sadness or 100% anger,” Cindy said. 

The frontal lobe that helps us process emotion and sort out how to respond is developing for about twenty-five years. (This is why young people seem to suddenly turn rational after college.) Since a toddler has a brand new, very undeveloped frontal lobe, they always respond at 100%.

If you’re looking for a way to be empathetic with your tantruming toddler, you can think about a time you were having a horrible day and then burst into tears or responded with anger to someone who had nothing to do with what you were actually upset about. These are the kind of big emotions your toddler is experiencing, but it doesn’t take a horrible day to set them off.

When we have these bad days and respond emotionally to things we shouldn’t, what we really need is connection. Your child feels the same way, so responding empathetically is going to be more helpful than responding punitively.

“These are skills. If a child is 1 or 2 and already experiencing these big emotions, we have to start providing them with the right tools,” Cindy said. She explained for older kids the game Simon Says is a good way to teach regulating emotions. It requires them to remember if Simon gave the command or to stop themselves from performing the action if he didn’t. For younger kids, you can turn Simon Says into a Bear and Dragon game using two puppets. The kid does what the bear says but can’t do what Naughty Dragon says.

You can also try “Dance, Dance, Freeze,” or the “opposites game.” But this is a thought pattern. It’s processing what actually happened, and then the child has to decide if they should inhibit their actions. This can be a complex skill to teach, but playing these games regularly will help.

Emotional regulation is the ability to adapt to changes in our environment that may trigger us, and parents need it too! “The more regulated and controlled we are in the environment, the more controlled and regulated they will be,” Cindy said. 

Our Role As A Parent During These Challenging Times

“The hardest part of parenting is realizing it’s not your child’s behaviour you have to change; it’s your own. It’s realizing I need help, or I need to work on myself. If I don’t work on myself, I cannot help my child,” Cindy said. That’s such a big deal. I didn’t realize 95% of the work I would do as a mom is regulating my own emotions.

I like to use the acronym BOLD.

B is for BREATHE. As soon as we feel like this tantrum is just out of control and we’re about to lose it with the kid, just breathe. Take a deep breath. This might sound too simple, but our breath regulates our nervous system. That deep breath is the first step to maintaining control.

OBSERVE without judgement what’s going on. Why am I reacting this way? Am I tired? Have I eaten? And why is the child so upset? Are they tired and hungry?

LISTEN to your values. Based on how you want to parent, what would be the best thing to do now?

DECIDE. Now that you’ve observed the situation and listened to your values, you have the ability to choose. All you have to do is decide you’re going to respond the way you want to and do it.

The Importance Of Making A Connection With Your Child During A Tantrum

“I always force myself to take three breaths before saying anything,” Cindy said. “Show them you understand they feel sad or frustrated.” Being sensitive and responsive is the best way to calm them down. 

“When they’re having these big emotions, their brain is releasing stress hormones, and the only way to calm it down is feeling that connection with us,” she explained. If you feel like nothing will tame your tantruming toddler, try getting down on their level and making eye contact. Because connecting with you will help them calm down.

“The connectedness part really helps both of us. For me, it reminds me they’re a tiny human being, and they’re not trying to get me with these emotions,” Cindy said. For her, this means getting on their level and looking into their eyes.

Just because we don’t think something is a big deal, it is a big deal to them. It’s consuming their entire capacity in that moment, and getting down on their level is more than connecting. As an adult when you stand, you’re towering over a child. By getting down on their level you deactivate their fight or flight response. You’re more likely to get the response you want this way.

After a tiny human flopping on the floor for the 47th time in a day, it can be hard to regulate our own emotions. I get it. I’ve screamed at my kids too. If you struggle to stay calm during the difficult moments, or you feel you’re just ragey sometimes, I’ve put together a course on managing mom rage to provide strategies and support for this.

Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. holds a doctorate degree in neuroscience. She is a mom of 3 and the founder of Curious Neuron, a resource providing parenting advice that is backed by science. Every week on Instagram, we focus on one topic surrounding child development, mental health, learning, or play. The Curious Neuron blog offers articles by experts in pediatrics and research and they are interviewed on the Curious Neuron podcast. Her goal is to make research accessible to parents and caregivers. Join the “Family Meetings” every Monday, where Cindy discusses the ups and downs of parenting. Join her online courses to discover your child’s brain development.    





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