Guest Post: Can You Stop the Nosedive? Understanding Tantrums & Meltdowns

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By Gillian Growdon

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind 
– By Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD

The holiday whirlwind leaves behind great memories, but also exhaustion: at my house I’ve noticed an uptick in the frequency of tantrums.  I’ll bet I’m not alone.

Enter The Whole Brain Child. In this book, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist—and parents of young children themselves—present brain science in a clear and immediately practical way.  Reading it has enabled me to look at those meltdowns differently. I feel less stressed because I have a few things I’m ready to try when the sugar-highs crash.

This book is written for families with children ages 3-12, and it includes an illustrated guide to the brain & cheat sheets for the fridge.

My main takeaways:

(1) We can’t reason with our children in the middle of a tantrum: their right- and left- brains are not fully integrated until their mid-twenties. The left-brain controls logic and likes lists, organization, and routine. The right-brain controls emotion and likes images, feelings, and the big picture. In a tantrum, kids’ right brains block access to logic.

The Whole-Brain Child gave me ways to ease this lack of right- and left- brain integration. For example, we can engage the left-brain to prevent a tantrum—rather than to calm an already-tantruming child.  For example, instead of simply saying “no” (when a child is likely to freak out when they hear this), we can appeal to their logic by making a plan, getting them to think, or even distracting them: “I see you are upset that Lewis knocked your tower down, can we build a moat or a gate to protect your fortress better next time?”

(2) I learned two new tricks for getting past monosyllabic answers when I want to hear about my kids’ day. First, the best stories are shared when you are doing something else, like driving, walking, or working on a puzzle. Second, playing games like “tell me two things about today, one that is true and one that is not” works!

(3) Recalling and telling a story about an emotional, painful or scary event—often repeatedly—helps kids heal and recover from whatever scared them.  It also helps them calm themselves down in future similar situations.

I Tried It

My 3-year-old daughter, Reese, is starting to have a tantrum because she wants to watch “Olivia,” but it’s time to get ready for school. My first reaction is what the authors would call a “retreat to my left-brain” (logic). I want to explain why we don’t watch TV on school days—either that or ignore her and let her deal with the natural consequence of going to school in her pajamas.

After reading only a few chapters of this book I could see that this wasn’t a “let’s see if I can get what I want tantrum” it was an “I am (sad, fearful, lonely) tantrum”. So I got on the floor and showed her with my words and body that I felt her emotions too. I have heard and tried this strategy before, but with the framework of the brain science behind it, I felt more willing to try it.

She moved more quickly past her anger and settled down enough to tell me that she was “sad for daddy.”

Because I had a plan for how to handle her tantrum, I was calm enough to think about her words. She was upset because John had been gone for a few days.  It wasn’t until she saw him at breakfast that she realized how she had felt when he was gone. So we sat and talked about how she was sad, I was sad, and she gradually started to wind down.

Does it work?

During Reese’s tantrum, I sort of felt like I was giving her “bad behavior” more time and attention than is often necessary. Would I be able to do that for each of my three children? In this instance, however, empathizing worked.

Reading Whole-Brain Child pushed me to connect emotionally with Reese during a run-of-the-mill tantrum. I also found myself talking about emotions during our family dinner and at bed time. In the right doses, this attention has helped our kids be more aware of their emotions, as well as feel ownership of the process of settling themselves down.

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  • Anna Wilson

    Great post gillian! I learned a lot and feel like this book will help me. (or, more aptly, Stella :)

  • Dr. Tina Payne Bryson

    Thanks so much for the nice review of my book!  Dan and I have been passionately teaching parents to attune and respond to their kids’ emotions, even in meltdown moments.  I just wrote an article about how NPR’s recent story on tantrums missed the boat.  You can read more about tantrums and how we need to think about them in totally new ways on my latest post here:
    http://tinabryson.com/2012/01/02/why-we-should-not-ignore-a-tantrum-or-where-npr’s-health-blog-missed-the-boat/
    Enjoy!  www.TinaBryson.com

    • http://www.christinecarter.com Dr. Christine Carter

      great! can’t wait to read the post!

  • Alexia Vs

    Interesting findings which are actually in line with what you can read in the Faber+Mazlish approach to communicating with children. I think their perspective, which integrates emotions at all times, is really valuable and can be adapted to each parenting style

    • http://www.christinecarter.com Dr. Christine Carter

      Yes, I love Faber & Mazlish, too.

    • http://www.christinecarter.com Dr. Christine Carter

      I really like the Faber & Mazlish approach as well!

  • Bradley Engwall

    I’m interested in reading Dan’s new tome, but I’m going to correct some info in the first lines:  He’s actually not a neurologist, but rather a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist; one of my tribe I’m proud to say :)   Also Ms Payne is a clinical psychologist (also very far from neurology).

    • Dr. Tina Payne Bryson

      Hi Bradley, Dr. Tina Payne Bryson here.  Thanks for helping clear things up.  You’re right, Dr. Dan Siegel is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, but I wanted to clear up my bio.  I’m a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, with a Ph.D. in social work.  And we both are big proponents of helping people understand how the brain works.  Thanks for your interest!
      http://www.TinaBryson.com

      • http://www.christinecarter.com Dr. Christine Carter

        Hi Brad & Tina,

        Thank you so much for the clarifications — I will have Gilly change that ASAP.  Sorry I didn’t catch it earlier.  I JUST gave your book to a friend with a frequently-tantruming kid yesterday!  

        Warmly,
        Christine

    • http://www.christinecarter.com Dr. Christine Carter

      Thank you, Brad, for the correction! We appreciate the clarification.