Anger, meltdowns, and tantrums get a bad rap. As parents, we worry that these behaviors indicate that our child is choosing to misbehave or that we’re somehow failing as parents. The judgmental stares and glances we get from onlookers only increases those insecure thoughts. We read books about what to do and try to tame our children’s behaviors through techniques, logic and consequences. But a child in the midst of an explosive behavior isn’t open to a logical discussion–and might not even be able to hear you. Why? Because during a meltdown, a child’s brain is under the control of what I call the “red pathway.” What the child says or does rarely reflects his thinking mind, but something much more primal: an innate survival instinct.
Studying brain science has given me a new perspective on these challenging behaviors. The more I have learned about brain development, the more I have come to appreciate anger, meltdowns, and tantrums for the protective, adaptive purposes they serve for children.
Here’s what I’ve learned from studying about the autonomic nervous system from one of the world’s most respected neuroscientists on the topic, Dr. Stephen Porges: human beings are born with an exquisite danger-detection system hardwired into our brains and bodies. It has helped us survive over millions of years. Think of it as our own personal TSA agent, keeping us safe, day and night.
When a baby senses that something is wrong, the detection system springs into action. The result is that the child cries, screams, or—when she detects the most extreme danger—simply shuts down and becomes very still. These behaviors serve as signals for her caregivers to feed her, soothe her, or otherwise attend to her pressing needs. Without this ability to signal for help, the infant would have difficulty surviving.
As a toddlers move into childhood and adolescence, personal TSA system remains powerful and effective. When a child senses that something is threatening, the calm, exploratory, “green” pathway of his brain (known as the social engagement system) veers onto the red pathway that is designed to keep him safe. The result: challenging behaviors, tantrums, meltdowns, and even aggression. When a child senses danger, his brain and body respond with protective “fight-or-flight” behaviors. That’s right, fight or flight behaviors are biologically protective.
Sometimes a child’s brain and body registers threats that might be invisible to a parent. Anything can set off the threat-detection system. A child might have a meltdown at the grocery store because his body is tired. Another child might experience sudden separation anxiety after being dropped off at school and as a result, kick a peer in the shin. This doesn’t necessarily mean that something is “wrong” with the child. It simply means that the child’s emotional resilience is fragile in that moment and/or still developing.
Fatigue, anxiety, feeling unsafe or unwell—any of millions of invisible triggers can send a child onto the red pathway of explosive behaviors. When this happens, it’s important to remember that the child is not choosing the behavior, but rather the child’s autonomic nervous system is choosing it. In short, a tantrum is rarely a conscious choice.
If children didn’t have the fight or flight pathway as a way to manage perceived threat, they would have one alternative when they sensed danger: to freeze or shut down. It’s important to remember that a child who freezes or shuts down in response to any situation is in autonomic-nervous-system distress and needs immediate, supportive intervention.
The bottom line: meltdowns and tantrums are not purposeful misbehavior. That’s why it’s important to not punish or offer negative consequences for such behaviors. In the moment, a child needs soothing, not lecturing or consequences—or punishment, which sends the human nervous system into increasing levels of distress.
We need to appreciate meltdowns for what they are: a signal that the child needs something from us or from her world. And how should we respond in these difficult moments? It depends on what is causing the child distress. In any case, what children need most during challenging times is the patience, warmth and love from the adults around them.
I share more about how we can support children when their behaviors are challenged in Beyond Behaviors.